REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

REVIEW: Godzilla vs. Biollante

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Directed by Kazuki Ōmori
Written by Kazuki Omori, Story by Shinichirô Kobayashi
Starring Kunihiko Mitamura, Yoshiko Tanaka, Masanobu Takashima, Kôji Takahashi, Tôru Minegishi, Megumi Odaka, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Ryûnosuke Kaneda, Manjot Beoi

When I first started watching Godzilla movies, I was about 9 years old. While I had seen bits and pieces of a few of the films here and there on television, I never really sat down for a true viewing until I read a Nickelodeon magazine article on the Big G in preparation for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film (I know, the horror). From there, I began to search high and low for every Godzilla movie on VHS I could get my hands on. I cannot tell you how many trips to K-Mart were had to find those things. In the summer of that year, I found my second Godzilla tape, and that turned out to be this little gem.

Following the events of Godzilla’s 1984 raid on Tokyo, scientists collect genetic material from the monster’s fallen scales. The samples are quickly stolen by Agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), an assassin for the Middle Eastern country of Saradia. Dr. Shiragami (Kôji Takahashi) plans to use the cells to produce highly adaptable wheat crops for Saradia, but before he can, the samples are destroyed by American sabotage, killing his daughter in the process. Spending years studying the remaining cells, Shiragami combines Godzilla’s genetic code with those of a rose and his own deceased daughter, resulting in Biollante, an eerie plant of titanic proportions. To make matters worse, a psychic woman (Megumi Odaka) detects Godzilla stirring from his volcanic prison. The military sends the flying Super-X2 to stop the beast from thrashing Japan, but eventually Godzilla engages the rapidly mutating Biollante in a fight to the death.

While The Return of Godzilla was a critical success, it’s box office take was rather marginal compared to the more fruitful early Showa-period entries, and a sequel was put on the backburner. When director Kazuki Ōmori was handed the project in 1986, he opted for a unique approach to generating the story: he convinced Toho Pictures to hold a contest for fans to submit their own story and original monster for Godzilla to battle. From five finalists, one of whom would go on to become the story for the post-apocalyptic feature Gunhed, Ōmori chose the entry by dentist Shinichiro Kobayashi, concerning a scientist’s quest to resurrect his deceased daughter by combining her genetic structure with first a plant, and then cells from Godzilla himself, resulting in the abominable hybrid creature Biollante.

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Developing the story further, Ōmori was able to craft an interesting and thought-provoking sci-fi film, with themes concerning the practice of genetic engineering and man’s often-times reckless misuse of it. The film begins immediately after TROG, with both the Japanese forces and mercenaries from American and Middle Eastern factions scavenging the remains of Tokyo for Godzilla cells. The desert country of Saradia, in particular, greatly desires the cells, for their chief engineer, Dr. Shiragami, believes he can crossbreed them with wheat plants to produce highly adaptive and regenerative crops that could turn Saradia into an oasis, no matter the effect on global power. From the start, GVB is a film brimming with geopolitical intrigue surrounding science of a questionable morality–much like the original Godzilla and its immediate predecessor.

Image result for dr shiragamiShiragami inhabits a unique position among Godzilla movie scientists. He’s not the typical nature-fearing voice of reason, however, nor is he a mad scientist, despite his status a Biollante’s creator. While his Frankenstein-like actions are in keeping with the better parts of a horror setting, his motivation, to save the soul of his daughter, dramatically paint all of his debates with Kirishima (Kunihiko Mitamura) in a much more nuanced light. Takahashi keeps his performance reserved and subdued, appearing to hide a silent pain that feels incredibly genuine. Of all the Heisei films, I think Takahashi got the best performance of them all.

The aforementioned Kirishima, the younger, and yet more conservative, geneticist, is fiery and moral, always on the defensive against his more risk-taking mentor. Through his misgivings we are presented with the ethical dilemma of genetic manipulation: early on, the Japanese government decides to counter Godzilla with a new artificially-created strain of bacteria that can consume nuclear material. While everyone else leaps at the chance to use this “Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria,” Kirishima is hesitant, because if Godzilla never shows, or is indeed finally defeated by the strain, Japan will have taken an uncomfortable seat next to the United States as the first to deploy a weapon which will shake the balance of power worldwide, and possibly trigger a new arms race. Sound familiar? Rounding out the main cast are Toru Minegishi as the funny Colonel Gondo, Yoshiko Tanaka as Kirishima’s love interest Asuka, and the adorable Megumi Odaka, playing the first appearance of the recurring psychic Miki Saegusa role.

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Unlike those previous entries, GVB places more of the onscreen emphasis on action. The first act contains more than one gunfight, usually involving Saradia’s sinister secret agent SSS-9 (Manjot Beoi), in an apparent attempt by Ōmori to inject spy thriller elements into the Godzilla formula. Seems he always wanted to direct a Bond film, but this was the closest he ever got. From Godzilla’s arrival, the film moves more into a hybrid of the government procedural format of TROG and more traditional kaiju destruction, with two big battles with the Biollante creature. In all honesty, the action itself isn’t bad, but isn’t anything particularly inspiring as far as blocking and innovation.

Instead, what really works for GVB is the cinematography of Yūdai Katō. Aiming for a more manageable middle ground between a smooth sheen and TROG‘s high-grain look, GVB keeps the darker, more night-based scenes but adds an organic wetness to the proceedings, further enhancing the new suit worn by Kenpachiro Satsuma, who achieves an even better performance here than previously. The suit is now one of Godzilla’s most iconic designs: bulky but muscular, with pronounced dorsal spines and a dragon-like, almost feline head with lifelike, canine eyes. Seriously, in some shots it appears alive.

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While Biollante’s first form doesn’t appear as lifelike, it and the second, more mutated form remain two of the most unique kaiju designs yet, topped only by the ’90s Gamera films. Slimy and wrapped in monstrous vines, Biollante is enough to make even the most seasoned tokusatsu veteran cringe in disgust.

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As I mentioned at the beginning, this was my second Godzilla film that I bought, after Monster Zero. While I loved the cheesy ’60s alien invasion story of the former, this film stirred in me some interesting thought, even with the at-times hilarious international English dub. (Godziller cells!) It’s a smart study in a burgeoning field of science where ethics may be the only thing preventing a catastrophe of proportions we still don’t fully understand, and for a film like that to keep my attention before age 10 is a feat indeed. While it sadly didn’t have the impact it should have had upon the new Heisei series due to its diminished returns, GVB‘s fortune has been on the rise, with a recent Japanese fan poll selecting it as the best Godzilla film to date. While I believe that honor still befalls the original, I gladly recommend Godzilla vs. Biollante in the top 5 whenever passing my kaiju knowledge along.

REVIEW: The Return of Godzilla (1984)

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Directed by Koji Hashimoto
Written by Hideichi Nagahara, Story by Tomoyuki Tanaka
Starring Ken Takaka, Yasuko Sawaguchi, Yôsuke Natsuki, Shin Takuma, Kaiju Kobayashi, Raymond Burr (American Version “Godzilla 1985”)

By 1975, I think it was safe to say that Godzilla had very little bite left, if any. His films played to the youngest of audiences, with such a juvenile and playful tone that none of the worldly, nuclear menace was left. After several box office failures, Godzilla went on a nearly ten-year vacation, in which many attempts were made to reboot the series, with as many different visions as to where it should go. The big guy would have to wait until 1984, but it was a wait well worth it.

While day sailing in the Pacific, reporter Goro Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds a missing fishing vessel, Yahata Maru, and discovers that all the hands have been killed by a giant sea louse except for one. The lone survivor, Okumura (Shin Takuma), then tells the reporter that the ship was attacked by a new Godzilla. Fearing a panic, the Japanese government attempts to cover up the news, failing when a Soviet nuclear submarine is destroyed and the situation puts them and the United States on the brink of nuclear war. Soon Japan and the rest of the world are on red alert as they wait for Godzilla to begin his rampage anew.

Opting for an almost completely clean reboot, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka brought to the table a story which respected not only the allegorical roots of the creature, but the fact the original film just couldn’t be remade in a modern setting. While his original conception pitted Godzilla against yet another monster, screenwriter Hideichi Nagahara thankfully dropped the second kaiju and concentrated on the geopolitical effects of the existence of such a monster. This was quite the revolutionary approach to a kaiju film; while tokusatsu cinema of the ’70s included some epic thrillers, Japan Sinks being one I can recall, kaiju films were purely the realm of the little ones. The Return of Godzilla expertly reverses this dynamic by only acknowledging the original film in its continuity.

Watching The Return of Godzilla, or Godzilla 1985 for you casual G-fans, you really get the sense that it was a Tom Clancy political potboiler before Tom Clancy was a thing. So much of the government procedural is there on the screen, with just enough military action and suspense to sex it up, the film is quite tense where it should be dull. The film starts off with a minor mystery in the form of Okumura and his missing fishing vessel, then swiftly enters the halls of the Japanese government and their desperate attempts to keep Godzilla’s return a secret. While the Prime Minister (Keiju Kobayashi) and his cabinet deal with the broad strokes, Okumura, his sister Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi), Maki, and Professor Hayashida (Yôsuke Natsuki, in a role very evocative of Dr. Yamane in the original film) study the monster, hoping to find some way of halting his coming landing.

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The Return of Godzilla fits more as a 70s film than an 80s one, even including a few visual effects shots from the Japanese thriller Prophecies of Nostradamus during Godzilla’s Tokyo rampage. But it’s more than a few homages; TROG carries with it a distinct contempt for the Cold War and its major players, the United States and the Soviet Union. About 30 minutes in, a Soviet submarine is destroyed under mysterious circumstances, triggering a standoff between the superpowers until the Japanese government reluctantly reveals that Godzilla was the culprit. You’d think this would be the end of the hostilities and the beginning of international cooperation, but you’d be wrong. Instead, both nations begin pressuring Japan to allow them to use nuclear weapons against the monster, no matter its location. It’s a uniquely Japanese viewpoint on the stupidity of nuclear brinkmanship that also earns the film a home among American cinema of the decade prior, with its distrust of the American government post-Nixon.

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The film moves nicely from each mini-crisis to the next, both edifying and decrying Japanese bureaucracy in much the same way Shin Godzilla would over 30 years later, while Hayashida provides the story’s philosophical heart. And at the halfway point, we finally get city-stomping Godzilla action. The monster’s new design is positively menacing, from its dead eyes to its sharp fangs. Portrayed mainly with tried-and-true suitmation, the 84Goji, as this design is referred to, is a quantum-leap above it’s predecessors, harkening back to the raw savagery of the original whilst conveying impressive mass. Yes, the special effects appear quite dated today, but look at the film through the lenses of the time and setting of its release, and TROG delivers the epic goods in a way the goofy late-Showa outings couldn’t muster.

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Shortly after its original release, TROG was picked up by New World Pictures for an American exhibition, cutting approximately 30 minutes of the Japanese print and adding ten more of new scenes involving a Pentagon response team viewing the destruction from Washington, joined by Raymond Burr, reprising his role as Steve Martin from Godzilla, King of the Monsters. While Burr is true-to-form, the other actors are comically unneeded and hollow, and the film unfortunately loses its pacifist stance with several changes to the narrative that paints the Soviets as villains. But all is not lost; some editorial changes do much to help the pacing of several sequences, and selections of Christopher Young’s Def-Con 4 score are used to great effect. In short, Godzilla 1985 is a mixed bag, but not entirely without merit.

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The Return of Godzilla, as the first film of the “Heisei” saga, works overtime to reestablish Godzilla’s destructive roots, and wins the day with its interesting fusion of government procedural and monster smash. More than anything, however, TROG will be remembered among fans and newcomers as probably their first introduction to an alternative point of view on the Cold War, one from a nation that would caught in the crossfire of the end of the world.

REVIEW: Lucy (2014)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

2014 saw the release of two films dealing with the concept of a post-human being: Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, which depicts the technological-based post-human concept of whole-brain emulation, and Luc Besson’s Lucy, which goes for a more preposterous premise for its titular transcendent being and uses her to tell a very spacy and heady action movie.

It was supposed to be a simple job. All Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) had to do was deliver a mysterious briefcase to Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi). But immediately Lucy is caught up in a nightmarish deal where she is captured and turned into a drug mule for a new and powerful synthetic drug. When the bag she is carrying inside of her stomach leaks, Lucy’s body undergoes unimaginable changes that begins to unlock her mind’s full potential. With her new-found powers, Lucy turns into a merciless warrior intent on getting back at her captors, receiving invaluable help from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the leading authority on the human mind, and French police captain Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked).

Like many of Luc Besson’s films, Lucy is a frothy-sweet mixture of pseudo-intellectual ideas and impeccably-staged action, centered around a strong female lead who can kick some serious ass. This time around, that lead is Scarlett Johansson, and her ass-kicking is the product of her unlocked mind. Embracing the tired old myth that human beings only use 10% of their brain mass, or “cerebral capacity” as Professor Norman calls it, Besson uses the hypothesis in a somewhat convoluted setup to a frenetic and stylish action flick that actually manages to make up for its narrative deficiencies.

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Before I go on to sing Lucy‘s praises, I must address the elephant in the room. As I already mentioned, Besson’s take on the mighty psionically-powered superhuman is fundamentally flawed from its base within the 10% brain usage myth. Simply put, it’s complete rubbish. We use every bit of our brains, and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest otherwise. Digging deeper into the premise of this “hypothesis,” mostly told through scenes of a lecture by Professor Norman and later by Lucy herself, only reveals the massive holes in Besson’s logic. Lucy’s ever-expanding cerebral capacity reveals dormant abilities in the human brain: complete control over her own body, over others, over electromagnetic signals, and finally, time itself. So why does she need a massively powerful synthetic drug to access it? Why do any of us? How exactly does a simple flesh-and-blood organ exert control over space-time? Besson tries his best to explain, but his best isn’t enough to ever come off as believable.

Luckily, he is very skilled at crafting a hell of a violent good time. Beginning with Lucy as a scared college student at the mercy of Oldboy‘s Min-sik Choi as a typical-to-form slimy Besson gangster, the film weaves an intricate drug mule plot that intercuts with both Norman’s lecture and some very on-the-nose shot sequences of predators and prey. It’s classic Besson, and provides suspenseful opening that eases the viewer into the more metaphysical remainder of the film, which starts with the bag of CPH4 rupturing in Lucy’s abdomen, exposing her to an overdose of the superdrug.

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From here, Johansson carries the film in a performance that it truly doesn’t deserve. Going from a terrified young woman, authentic in every way, the CPH4 transforms her into a relentless killing machine with very little humanity left. It’s a very tall order for any actor to have to play, but Johansson toes the very fine line and succeeds brilliantly, appearing sufficiently creepy with just the right amount of her previous identity to anchor the character. Min-sik echoes her creepy factor as Jang, and Amr Waked rounds out the main players as a French detective caught up in Lucy’s quest to acquire more of the drug in order to stay alive. And of course, Morgan Freeman is God–er, I mean Morgan Freeman.

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Heavy on CGI visual effects, Lucy nonetheless electrifies visually, appearing as a clean and colorful digital slate punctuated by images of the changing innards of Lucy’s body and the powerful manifestations of her new abilities. Action scenes are handled with care, either with a tactful mind to cutting or with John Woo-style slow motion that allows us to savor every gunshot, every pounding hit.

When it comes down to it, Lucy likes to play around with very interesting and profound ideas about human perspective and the boundaries of perception and reality, with a character that has truly transcended all of it. Whether it does that well seems to be up to interpretation, given it’s horribly wrong method of presenting said questions. Lucy is blue pill entertainment; meant to be consumed, not savored, and while I can’t quite turn my brain fully off to avoid complaining about the perpetuation of pseudo-science at its worst, that doesn’t mean I can’t recommend the film for what it is: hella fun.

REVIEW: Shin Godzilla (2016)

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Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Written by Hideaki Anno
Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Osugi (get accent mark), Akira Emoto, Kengo Kora (accent), Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Kunimura, Pierre Taki

With the success of Legendary Pictures’ Americanized reboot of Godzilla, Toho back in Japan wanted to get back into the action. While still retaining the rights deal with Warner Brothers, allowing the Monsterverse to continue, Toho set about producing a new film to be directed by Hideaki Anno, the famous creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you’re a fan, than you are probably assuming right now that Godzilla goes all metaphysical, right? Eh, not quite.

An unknown accident occurs in Tokyo Bay’s Aqua Line, flooding the underwater passageway as citizens scramble to evacuate. An emergency cabinet meeting is assembled, just in time to witness a giant creature surface from Tokyo Bay and make its way across land in the heart of the city. Growing in size and mutating with each unsuccessful attack against it, the creature seems unstoppable. Government official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) is placed in charge of a special research team to investigate ways to kill or incapacitate the beast, now dubbed “Godzilla.”

More than several kaiju and tokusatsu films have tried to establish a realistic scenario for the appearance of a giant monster; the original Godzilla and the Heisei era films The Return of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Biollante presented the effect of the titular kaiju upon various geopolitical aspects of the world, while “foreign” monster films like the British Gorgo and Korean The Host carried an air of authenticity and spectacle to their visions of creature carnage. Shin Godzilla can easily be added to this fraternity, but its approach to the material is substantially more plausible and researched. Why? Because Shin Godzilla can be referred to as “Politicians vs. Godzilla.”

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The film begins with a brief mystery in the form of a deserted pleasure craft in Tokyo Bay before the water erupts in a large steam eruption, causing damage and flooding to the Tokyo Aqua Line highway. We as an audience are then treated to 13 minutes of dry bureaucracy. Yes, you read that right. As we are introduced to protagonist Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Cabinet Chief, we are also introduced to his world of relentless politics and red tape as Cabinet meeting after government committee after press conference seeks to establish just what is going on, and what to do about it. If this sounds incredibly boring, than I wouldn’t blame you, but I would rest easy–with the quick pace and sheer amount of subtitles you’ll be reading, I’m sure you won’t be too listless during your viewing.

Close viewing during this opening sequence will reward inquisitive viewers, however, as Anno’s intent quickly becomes apparent among every ignorant assumption and naive rush to judgment several government officials make, always rewarded with a simple, fast cut to a harsh reality check in the form of the giant monster now wading out of the bay and into metropolitan Tokyo. Again and again, even with the best of intentions, Japan’s flat-level democratic government, following the exact letter of the law, fails against the nuclear menace, resulting in one of the most salient and darkly humorous satires of government around today.

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But this is a Godzilla movie, you shout, and I soothe and calm with my analysis of the character, as this Godzilla is probably the most unique iteration on screen. First appearing quite alien to previous versions in the form of a bizarre, fish-eyed, bleeding-gilled monstrosity that can barely support its own week, it soon begins to mutate, revealing the most innovative addition to the Godzilla mythos: this Godzilla is highly adaptive, capable of mutating its body and DNA at will. Resulting in a changing creature that forms the most hideous Godzilla design yet, this film hits a home run in devising a new spin on the Big G.

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Further building on the design is co-director and special effects artist Shinji Higuchi’s work in creating Godzilla, this time done almost completely with CG effects. A clear break from tokusatsu tradition, to be sure, but the end result is incredibly convincing, due to the effects team’s efforts to keep Godzilla as stiff and suit-like as possible, which ironically gave the design a lifelike quality that accurately conveyed size and power. Their finest work probably comes at the halfway point in the film when Godzilla is bombed by American B-2 bombers, enraging the beast and prompting his first use of his destructive atomic beam.

Most of these scenes are accompanied by an equally-unusual sound design, employing a mixture of classical Toho sound effects and Akira Ifukube music with new sounds and music cues. When I first saw the film in theaters during its short American run, I was unimpressed and even bothered by the use of the old sounds and music, feeling that their limited dynamics were out of place. Now I’m convinced it was the fault of the cinema’s speaker system, as the blu-ray’s uncommon 3.1 mix produces a deep fidelity and bass I do not recall encountering before. In short, Shin Godzilla should highly please fans of the classic films with regards to their ears.

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After the mounting destruction of the first half, Godzilla falls into a long hibernation, and Rando’s research team reforms to discover a way to defeat him before a UN coalition employs nuclear weapons to resolve the situation. After systematically deconstructing the helplessness of Japan’s democracy to handle the crisis, Anno’s film then abruptly turns about face, giving Rando and his nerds the reigns to save the day with democracy. They bend only the rules they cannot follow to the letter, and break none, showing that even below the layers upon layers of tape, the right men and women with the right combination of ambition, compassion, and courage can prevail and make this world a better one.

Now I know that sounds very different from what is expected from a serious Godzilla movie, but fret not–the final scene brings one final revelation, one I won’t reveal here. Let’s just say that Godzilla’s origins as Nature’s reaction to the ravages of the human race are preserved in full with this film, and while Shin Godzilla requires an open mind and a quick eye for subtitles, to the right viewer, it is a real gem of modern tokusatsu. With Shin Godzilla, Anno has shown what humans can be capable of when working together toward a noble goal…but nature is patient, and she never forgets our crimes.

REVIEW: Godzilla (1954)

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Directed by Ishirô Honda
Written by Takeo Murata and Ishirô Honda, Story by Shigeru Kayama
Starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kôchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai

The Big One. Or rather, the Big G.

Godzilla, the first of many films starring the titular gargantuan reptile, ignited a tradition in the then-infant Japanese film industry, the tokusatsu, or special effects, film, and forced the island nation to come to grips with their unique and unfortunate history with humanity’s deadliest invention: the nuclear weapon. Godzilla still stands as a triumph above that final chapter of imperial shame, above much of tokusatsu that came after, and indeed, above most science fiction cinema in general.

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk, the results of neither natural phenomenon nor foreign action. An expedition to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were lost, led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well.

I’m sure most of you know the story by now: several Japanese fishing vessels are lost at sea, while a giant creature living off the coast of Odo Island is discovered to be at fault. An ancient reptile awakened by nuclear weapons testing, it is dubbed Godzilla by the inquisitive Dr. Yamane before it begins walking ashore towards Tokyo, bringing a trail of fiery destruction with it. What some of you may not know is just how topical and in tune with the events of the time this film was, or how unfortunately relevant it remains today. Conceived by producer Tomoyuki Tanaka after another project fell through, Godzilla is still the apex of tokusatsu, equaled by none.

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Tanaka’s idea was born out of two of Japan’s biggest events of 1954. That year saw the official end of the American occupation and the return of complete control to the new republican government and the newly-established Self Defense Forces. Before Godzilla, all Japanese entertainment had to be approved by the occupation, which severely limited portrayals of Japanese military might and government stability. Watching the film proves that this was no longer the reality by the time of its release, with the valiant efforts of the SDF against the monster and the scenes of the Diet locked in fierce debate.

The other major event of 1954 was the Lucky Dragon incident, from which the film’s first act takes heavy inspiration. During the American Castle Bravo H-bomb test of that year, the fishing trawler Lucky Dragon No. 5 strayed too close to the fallout, resulting in the crew suffering radiation sickness and even one death. This sparked a chill in American-Japanese relations right after the occupation, and stunned a population who still harbored fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cue the opening scene of Godzilla, aboard the fishing vessel Eiko-maru:

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In the midst of this fealty to the outside world, director Ishiro Honda presents some fairly traditional scenes of two lovers, Ogata and Emiko, trying to navigate their young relationship in the face of not only the fishing disasters, but Emiko’s father Yamane, and her fiancé Dr. Daisuke Serizawa, a reclusive, scarred war vet with a terrible secret locked in his lab. Their affair quickly spirals into the background of a bitter debate when Godzilla is revealed to the world at large: Honda’s film excels at navigating the moral and ethical grey areas of the existence of such a monster, whether in the salient Diet debate over whether to publish the truth of Godzilla’s threat or conceal it to preserve order and the economy, or in Yamane’s quiet torment over being the only person to want to save the creature, seeing only its potential to unlock the secrets of radioactivity, and its resistance to it.

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In this subplot is where Honda and screenwriter Takeo Murata begin to truly play with the real-world consequences of the nuclear age. While the original storywriter Shigeru Kayama made Yamane a Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cloaked figure, engaged in sabotage against the SDF to protect Godzilla, Takashi Shimura’s Yamane is much more contemplative and down-to-earth, desperately trying to salvage something noteworthy and meaningful to mankind out of its most foolish and terrible mistakes, manifest in the monster itself. Shimura becomes the easily the best performer in a strong collection of actors on screen, preserving a countenance of regret over the futility of his efforts.

Image result for godzilla 1954 serizawaSo too Akihiko Hirata as Serizawa, whose secret lab is revealed to house a new and terrible superweapon: the Oxygen Destroyer, a substance capable of liquefying any organic material in water, a sure way to kill Godzilla. But therein lies his dilemma: the Oxygen Destroyer is an easy contender for a new weapon of mass destruction in the ever-escalating Cold War, and he fears that his discovery will become another tool of the superpowers against innocent people unless he can find a better, more humane use for his compound. Like Yamane, Serizawa seems to be trying to salvage a workable future from mankind’s violent past and present, although his character arc is much more reminiscent of the real life J. Robert Oppenheimer, the remorseful creator of the atomic age.

Undoubtedly, however, the main event of Godzilla to most viewers would be Godzilla himself. Portrayed by a combination of puppets and a large, 200-lb rubber suit, Godzilla, in this original film at least, remains a wholly-convincing special effect. While the puppet shots have most certainly aged poorly and don’t fit with the rest of the footage, the cumbersome suit, worn valiantly through fainting spells and buckets of sweat by Haruo Nakajima, portrays a confused and tortured beast, staggering around a highly-detailed miniature Tokyo as if it is constantly in searing pain (the presence of keloid scars across its hide does much to bolster this observation). Honda’s stark black-and-white photography captures all of the nuances of Nakajima’s performance and Eiji Tsuburaya’s special effects work, resulting in an image eerily reminiscent of wartime footage that would have been very hard to watch for those who had survived it. Combined with Akira Ifukube’s still-haunting score, the effect is palpable.

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Godzilla would become a smashing success in Japan and several other markets in its original release in 1954, convincing a skeptical public that Japan was a new contender in big special effects pictures, while still telling a dark and emotional story at its core. For its wide American release, Transworld Pictures commissioned a re-edited version, starring Raymond Burr in reshoots as Steve Martin, a newspaperman on whom the altered story would center. While toning down its more anti-war and nuclear age arguments (most certainly due to American Cold War attitudes of the time), Godzilla, King of theImage result for godzilla raymond burr Monsters! is still a solid Americanization of the original film, indeed, probably the best of them. Burr’s Martin, acting as a narrator to smooth the gaps in the story caused by the editing, is a fascinating character in his own right, and unlike later dubs, much of the original characters’ dialogue remain intact, creating a respectful image of the actors and their heritage. Indeed, without this version of the film, Godzilla may not be as popular as he is today, owing to the fact that King of the Monsters! was much more widely distributed across the world.

Godzilla seems to be an acquired taste, even with viewers who claim to be fans. Still thought of by the general populace as “that green dinosaur who fights aliens,” Godzilla may surprise those folks with its chilling realism and somber tone–if they manage to survive a viewing. It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a film that I wish was, for in today’s world, it seems the threat of nuclear annihilation isn’t taken seriously anymore. I can’t count on my hands how many times in a week I hear co-workers or passersby dismiss the Middle East or North Korea with a simple ‘nuke-em’ statement, and I can’t help but wonder if the Earth decided to regurgitate a monster born from this ignorant view to wreak havoc upon their lives, would they regret what they so often think?

This is the message of Godzilla. Heed it well.

REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

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Directed by Luc Besson
Written by Luc Besson, Based on the comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer

Luc Besson is probably one of the most risk-taking filmmakers out there today, although that declaration should come with a qualifier; his risks aren’t in innovation or narrative, style, or visual effects techniques, but in the simple fact that he always sets out to please his own violence-loving tendencies. A glance through his filmography reveals an almost Hong Kong filmmaking-esque fetishizing of martial arts, gunfights, and balls-to-the-wall action is evident, and when coupled with his unique French perspective on the camera lens it makes for at least a good time, if not always a breathtaking time. Valerian is somewhere towards the bottom part of his middle ground, breathtaking to the eyes but not so much the head and heart, but is that really a bad thing?

In the 28th century, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are a team of special operatives charged with maintaining order throughout the human territories. Under assignment from the Minister of Defense (Herbie Hancock), the two embark on a mission to the astonishing city of Alpha: an ever-expanding metropolis where species from all over the universe have converged over centuries to share knowledge, intelligence and cultures with each other. There is a mystery at the center of Alpha, a dark force which threatens the peaceful existence of the City of a Thousand Planets, and Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. 

Based on the popular Franco-Belgian comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Besson’s film is a very obvious labor of love by the French auteur, having grown up reading the comic since it’s beginning in the yesteryear of 1967. Financed with a combination of crowd-sourcing and his own pocket, totaling 210 million dollars, Valerian is now the most expensive independent film ever made. Not that it matters much now that the film is tanking in the box office, but I suspect Valerian will have longer legs on home video and in the streaming market, where its spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element carved out a cult following.

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Valerian begins with what is now among my top-ten opening sequences of the past decade: the progression of the Alpha Space Station over two centuries, presenting all sorts of human and alien peoples joining hands with a succession of welcoming captains in mutual cooperation–and it’s set to David Bowie’s Space Oddity. Solid start. Continuing onto probably the best full-out visual effects sequence since anything seen in Avatar, we are introduced to the Pearls, a race of peaceful, nature-oriented aliens who fish magical, energy-giving pearls from the oceans, using small creatures called converters, that can replicate a hundred-fold anything they consume, to replenish the planet’s supply. But, just as quickly as we come to admire them, the Pearls’ paradise is shattered by the falling wrecks of a space fleet, and they seem to be obliterated by a war that they had no part in.

Without having actually read Valerian, I can’t say for certain that this is an accurate assessment, but from what I do know, this opening is an excellent demonstration of Christin’s humanist and liberal leanings in his writing, which comes more and more to the forefront through Cara Delevingne’s Laureline, as independent and humanist as they come, compared to her partner and superior, Major Valerian, who’s womanizing ways and adherence to protocol and law do more than infuriate his partner and the object of his desires throughout the story.

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Unfortunately, with their introduction is where I start to tune out. While Delevingne’s performance is a bit wooden in places, this is all a part of the package, as a glance through the comics reveals their Golden Age Space Opera origins, ’30s dialogue and all. In fact, in many scenes, I found her to be the breath of fresh air compared to Dane DeHaan, who in this critic’s opinion, should never have been allowed near the role of Valerian. His cheap imitation at a manly comic strip hero’s voice betrays how shrimpy he looks in the role, as if he were a ten-year-old boy playing astronaut dress-up. He has absolutely no chemistry with Delevingne, and his stunted delivery during some of the most pivotal and emotional moments destroys the drama almost as much as Besson’s barely passable writing.

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Oh yeah, the script. Honestly, past the mentioned opening, I’m not too impressed with the story. The comic was a space opera with heavy time travel elements, with Laureline literally having been an 11th Century French villager before being recruited into the Spatio-Temporal Service. The film makes little-to-no mention of time travel at all, presumably to streamline things for a wider audience, but that is no excuse for robbing Valerian of what could have been another major selling point besides the amazing visuals. Even worse is Besson’s handling of the romantic subplot and Commander Filitt’s (Clive Owen) motivations; while Filitt’s endgame is needlessly drawn out over ten minutes of precious climactic screentime, Valerian is established as already wanting to get into Laureline’s pants, and after only 20 minutes, is to the point of proposing to her. May I remind you this film is almost 140 minutes long?

Past these immense problems, the film starts to present some redemption. Everyone else in front of the camera does a pretty good job with their material, even when their roles amount to little more than extended cameo’s like Ethan Hawke and the great Rutger Hauer. And for once, Rihanna was actually one of the better parts of a movie.

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However, the real star of Valerian is the immense and immersive world created on screen through some of the best CGI work in a long time. Created by a unified team of ILM and Weta Digital artists, everything from the massive world of Alpha to the myriad species of alien beings are created lovingly and in textures that appear incredibly lifelike in Besson’s neon-lit style employed in this picture.

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So, what is my final verdict? While the casting of Valerian himself and Besson’s writing are huge flaws that pull the film down from the potential it could have had, ultimately, it isn’t a complete waste of time. In fact, the immersive world on display and the thrilling alien action are enough to convince me to give this film another go around when it hits blu-ray. Until then, I’d say proceed with caution on a matinee or discount night at your local cinema. Wait until a more worthy independent project comes along to pay full price.