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.

REVIEW: An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991)

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Directed by Phil Nibbelink and Simon Wells
Written by Flint Dille, Story by Charles Swenson, Characters Created by David Kirschner
Starring the Voices of Phillip Glasser, James Stewart, Dom DeLuise, Amy Irving, John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Erica Yohn, Cathy Cavadini, Nehemiah Persoff

One of the many VHS tapes I wore out as a child. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West may have been the animated cinema equivalent of blasphemy–a sequel to a Don Bluth film made without his presence–but it still holds a special place in my heart for sentimental reasons. It’s actual merits are a little harder to defend, but not impossible.

Some time after the Mousekewitz’s have settled in America, they find that they are still having problems with the threat of cats. That makes them eager to try another home out in the west, where they are promised that mice and cats live in peace. Unfortunately, the one making this claim is an oily con artist named Cat R. Waul (John Cleese) who is intent on his own sinister plan. Followed by their true cat friend, Tiger (Dom DeLuise), the Mousekewitz’s travel west, where Fievel must team up with his Old West sheriff hero, Wylie Burp (James Stewart), to stop Waul.

Bluth’s original film was made towards the beginning of his remarkable directorial career, after he had left Disney and set up shop with Universal studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. While that relationship would soon end, An American Tail was the result of that pairing. With Bluth out for the sequel, Spielberg proved to be the guiding influence that saved this sequel from complete ruin, bringing on board two likewise former Disney animators, Phil Nibbelink, and the grandson of the great H.G. Wells, Simon Wells.

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Picking up where the original left off with Fievel’s family having settled on the East Coast of America, the film quickly glosses over any and all continuity hiccups quickly, showing that their “land of opportunity” wasn’t all it was croaked up to be. After an attack by a vicious cat gang drives them underground, they are duped into heading west to start yet another new life by the villain of the picture, Cat R. Waul, played with eloquent viciousness by John Cleese, easily becoming the best voice of the film.

Out west in the town of Green River, the mice are again lured into becoming the workforce for the cats building the town, who plan to then feast on the mice as a celebration. Fievel goes to the town’s canine sheriff, the old and tired Wiley Burp, for help, who then enlists Fievel’s cat friend Tiger for a vigorous training and showdown with Waul’s gang. James Stewart, in his final role, voices Burp with all the Western movie star swagger he has left, becoming an excellent compliment to the wild antics of Dom DeLuise as the cowardly Tiger.

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Despite Bluth’s absence, animation technique and style remain mostly consistent with the first film, even in the face of design changes to several characters. In fact, the only real minus I can give to the animators is that the color palette of this film seems a bit bright compared to the rusty bronze of the first, but then again, this could be a consequence of the change of setting to the sandy western deserts of America. The film’s score is as proficient and moving as the original, with the new song, “Dreams to Dream,” as good as “Somewhere Out There” was.

If there’s a major flaw to Fievel Goes West, it’s the story. Clocking in at 76 minutes, it’s shrimpy compared to An American Tail, seemingly missing an entire act before Fievel goes to Burp for help, and spending much of its early minutes establishing yet another “Fievel gets separated from his family” subplot. Even his father doesn’t seem to worried about him after he is lost, considering that this a movie that steals just a bit too much from its predecessor.

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Opening the same weekend as Beauty and the Beast, Fievel Goes West was destined to be smashed by that superior film, even without its narrative deficiencies. However, this said, it tends to be an overlooked piece in early ’90s animation, worthy of just as much praise and attention as any of Bluth’s films from the same period. I just wish there was more of it.

REVIEW: Dunkirk (2017)

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Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branaugh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Nolan’s first war film, and the first removed from the realm of science fiction and fantasy since 2002’s Insomnia, Dunkirk is no less experimental and thought-provoking than any of his other works, and also like the rest of his filmography, is so good that I can’t choose exactly what I think is his best.

The dramatic and true story of the Dunkirk evacuations from a war torn beach and harbour in France, following the seemingly doomed plight of Allied soldiers in World War II. As the enemy forces close in it seems the troops have nowhere to go, but help is at hand and a fierce battle ensues.

While comparisons to Saving Private Ryan aren’t entirely unfounded,  Dunkirk is a wholly-different kind of film than Spielberg’s opus. Indeed, both aim for an immersive and pulse-pounding ambiance that places the viewer the thick of World War II, Private Ryan had a dirty, shaky documentary-type of feel, drained of almost all color in a successful approximation of black-and-white photography that saturated the immense sadness of the plight its characters found themselves in. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, on the other hand, is a wide, sweeping cinematic experience, clear in both its cinematography as well as its goal of being a very different breed of war film.

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By now, Nolan is a star unto himself. Having reinvented the superhero myth with the Dark Knight trilogy and electrified the summer blockbuster field with mind-bending films like Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar, his name is enough to sell a film on, and that is exactly what happened with this one. There are more than a few famous faces in Dunkirk–Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hardy, James D’Arcy, and musician Harry Styles, to name several–but their characters are mere figureheads, and second to the plot of the film itself. Beginning in the streets of the Dunkirk commune in France in the latter half of 1940, the picture quickly introduces us to three sets of characters, all of whom receive little-to-no development or elaboration, with some lacking even names. This allows for the film to become an extension of the audience’s feelings and emotions during the viewing, encouraging us to impress our own traits onto the characters in a more involved humanization.

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This allows Nolan to focus all of his energies as writer-director on the triptych-structure of the story. Told from three perspectives, The Mole, The Sea, and The Air, Dunkirk eschews omniscient storytelling for sheer disorientation in its narrative–not unlike the kind of confusion a retreating British soldier would have felt during the actual event. And then, Nolan hits us over the head with his screenwriting hammer. Each perspective is told at a different pace: roughly one week’s time for The Mole, one day for The Sea, and one hour for The Air. They are then shuffled into a non-linear narrative that rewards active participation in a viewing.

The Mole features three army soldiers, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles), as they attempt, over and over again, to escape the beach port of Dunkirk, only to meet with failure several times as different ships that they board are sunk by German war machines. It’s a methodically thrilling story that puts these men into impossible situations and really tests their resolve to survive. Kenneth Branaugh and James D’Arcy also factor into this storyline as Commander Bolton, the pier master of the British evacuation, and Colonel Winnant, who serve as the melancholic counterpoint to the soldiers as they watch ship after ship founder with precious lives aboard.

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The Sea depicts the efforts of civilian sailors and yachtsman who answered the Naval call and rescued soldiers directly from the beaches, centered mainly on Dawson (Mark Rylance), an old fisherman, and his son Peter (Tom-Glynn Carney) and his friend and deckhand George (Barry Keoghan). As they take their small vessel out into the waters surrounding France, they first encounter the sole survivor of a wrecked destroyer (Cillian Murphy), hopelessly crippled by shell-shock. This segment serves mainly as the philosophical core of the film, with questions of heroism and duty in the face of certain death clashing with the reality of the bloodiest war in human history.

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The third segment, The Air, focuses on a small squadron of Supermarine Spitfires, Farrier (Tom Hardy), Collins (Jack Lowden), and their squadron leader as they head toward Dunkirk to provide aerial support. Encountering several German planes along the way, the film reaches some its most dizzying heights of tension during the dogfights of this slice, peppered with the element of suspense in Farrier’s broken fuel gauge.

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As these subplots continue on, Nolan brings back what is now his trademark, the manipulation of time in narrative structure, to both weave these disparate storylines in and out of each other, and to create tension and dramatic progression where there originally may not have been. As the last third of the film brings all of these characters together spatially, the emotional crescendo builds and builds, eclipsing most other war epics by throwing manufactured sentimentality and sappy cliches to the wayside in favor of stark, steady realism.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Nolan film without complete technical perfection, and his crew helps him accomplish this in spades. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema returns from Interstellar to paint a cold blue picture that precisely emulates aerial stock footage from inside the cockpit as well as it apes the vast crowd productions of silent cinema on the ground. Lee Smith works once again with Nolan, creating an editorial collaboration that just may be the best this critic has ever encountered, and Hans Zimmer provides his most experimental score yet, a literal ticking time bomb that steals from the best of the horror tradition during the most tense moments, and ends with a haunting final track that stirs the emotional climax without becoming hokey at all.

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Christopher Nolan was perhaps born in the wrong time. His films all operate on a technical level unseen since Kubrick, and share more than one of his artistic quirks. Nolan would have perhaps felt more at home during the auteur days of the 1960s or the impressionistic cinema of the silent era, but I for one am glad to have him here in my time. He’s always a breath of fresh air, even when he’s pulling from centuries-old material, and Dunkirk continues this proud tradition. With an uncommon narrative, independence from sanctimonious character milking, and reliance on the grounded reality of in-camera effects and 70mm film, Dunkirk is a true work of art floating in a sea of dime store merchandise.

REVIEW: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

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Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner
Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, June Chadwick, Tony Hendra, Bruno Kirby

I grew up under the watchful eye of a father with a heavy love of rock and roll. I always love to say that I developed in the womb listening to Rush and Pink Floyd, and the only genre of film I consumed more than sci-fi pictures were rock concerts and music documentary films. Needless to say, my long-belated first viewing of This Is Spinal Tap stirred some dormant childhood memories. In between the laughs.

In 1982, legendary British heavy metal band Spinal Tap (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) attempt an American comeback tour accompanied by a fan (Rob Reiner) who is also a film-maker. The resulting documentary, interspersed with powerful performances of Tap’s pivotal music and profound lyrics, candidly follows a rock group heading towards crisis, culminating in the infamous affair of the eighteen-inch-high Stonehenge stage prop.

From the get-go, I’d say Rob Reiner’s ambition with this film wasn’t just to revive an old ABC comedy sketch, but to prove that the documentary is the most perfect form of comedy. Capturing the sense of humorous unity in its fictitious band played by three veteran comedians who’ve had time to cement their comedic camaraderie, Reiner’s film is probably as gut-busting as it is subtle, enough to fool those who don’t know of the monumental(ly bad) rock legends of Spinal Tap into believing this is a real doc.

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Starting with most of its humor contained within the “behind the scenes” segments of the film, Spinal Tap slowly picks up pace, revealing a band in its death throes–but the band doesn’t know it yet. Their music (while catchy to my Iron Maiden-loving ears) is juvenile at best and hopelessly pretentious at worst, their interviews are stuffed with brainless drivel and politician-level evasion, and their interactions with management and the filmmakers contain a terrifying amount of stupidity. In a scene that sums up the entire affair, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist, takes Reiner on a tour of his workshop, littered with far more guitars and amps than even the greatest guitarist of all time would need, capped off with a special amp with dials that go up to 11. Why 11?

With logic like that, who needs the Stones?

As the show goes on, Reiner’s sensibilities stay square on target, punctuated by bursts of dry, out-of-control insanity. The diva-like complaints on backstage food, the slapstick stage malfunctions, and the arrival of lead singer David St. Hubbins’s (Michael McKeen) Yoko Ono-like girlfriend are works of genius, and when filtered through the high-contrast filmstock so evocative of actual rock documentaries, it comes across as incredibly subtle, even during the zanier moments.

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This is as much owed to the main stars of McKeen, Guest, and Harry Shearer in full Lemmy Kilmister-mode as it is to Reiner. Having played the roles before in an ABC pilot sketch, they obviously have had time to perfect their stagecraft in ways that blows the mind. Nothing feels forced or scripted between them, and they effectively disappear under the hair and makeup of bad ’80s rock.

From cross-eyed manager with a cricket bat to the perpetuation of nature’s hatred of drummers, This Is Spinal Tap is shrewd comedic perfection at every turn. It’s funny and authentic at the same time, and hits quite at home when one knows exactly how the brains of rock stars work. It’s a world of egotism, disconnect, and buffoonery, and Reiner’s film is quite simply the best at showing that.

REVIEW: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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Directed by George A. Romero
Written by John Russo and George A. Romero
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Russell Streiner, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Riley, Kyra Schon, George Kosana, Bill Cardille, Bill Heinzman

In commemoration of the passing of the great George A. Romero, I’ve decided to rewatch the Living Dead films before the October/Halloween marathon. His work in creating these amazing films will never go unappreciated, and should be preserved and experienced by as many people as possible to ensure the lessons he tried to teach us, as a society, through a series of horror pictures never fades away. Rest, George. This one’s for you.

Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) visit their father’s grave in a remote cemetery when they are suddenly set upon by crazed, violent people. Barbra manages to get away and takes refuge in what seems to be an abandoned farm house, soon joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who stopped at the house in need of gas. Beset by attackers all around them, Ben does his best to secure the doors and windows. As news reports tell of grim happenings attributed to the bodies of the dead returning to life, Barbra and Ben are surprised to realize that there are 5 people hiding out in the basement: Harry (Karl Hardman), Helen (Marylin Eastman) and Judy Cooper (Kyra Schon); and a young couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Riley). Dissension sets in almost immediately with Harry Cooper wanting to be in charge. As their situation deteriorates, their chances of surviving the night lessen minute by minute.

I won’t go too much into the plot of George Romero’s seminal indie classic, as it’s simple story is already well-known in the annals of horror pop-culture: the recently dead begin rising again, driven by animalistic instincts to murder and cannibalize the living, leaving our characters stranded in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. What is just as important as the formation of the modern zombie in this film is the struggle between the characters themselves.

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Representing a microcosm of American society, the characters of Ben, Barbra, Harry, Helen, Tom, and Judy are subtle blackboards with which Romero and John Russo doodle upon to present a society besieged by such a disgusting and terrifying epidemic. Now, as Romero had pointed out numerous times, he and his crew were never intending for Night to become the phenomenon it became, nor were they trying to make any kind of racial or political statement by casting a black man, Duane Jones, as Ben (Jones was simply the best actor available). In fact, in hindsight, it seems super obvious, given that over the course of the film, Ben’s actions lead to more deaths than does Harry’s. This is important to note, to look at the film as intended, which is that of a horror film that draws upon the culture of its time of release to produce the best scares possible.

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1968 was one of the most tumultuous and excrutiating years in American history, seeing continued Southern violence, the assassination of two popular American leaders, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Romero’s and Russo’s characters are very much rooted in that world, with Ben and Harry representing two different sides of angry masculinity, Image result for night of the living dead 1968clashing and butting heads at every turn, jostling and pulling the rest of the characters as they attempt to exert their wills. The helplessness of their situation only exacerbates their conflict, leaving the viewer to come to only one inescapable conclusion: that they, like every faction fighting the 1960s, were destined to fail. The sexist climate of the ’60s is also on prominent, albeit unfortunate display, as it seems that every female character is patently useless, especially main player Barbra, who sinks into catatonia halfway through.

Another factor of the film’s script that propels it above its B-movie origins, this one understated in all of the social commentary talk, is its depiction of the zombie hoard and the narrative devices it employs to portray their worldwide threat. Before Night, a zombie was usually a myth rooted in Voodoo culture, a slave of biotoxins cooked up by a creepy medicine man. Romero’s zombies are a wholly science fiction construct, reanimated ambiguously by a returning Venus space probe. They are truly dead creatures, with no human nature left except an overpowering, instinctual hunger, shambling about at a slow pace towards their prey, undaunted by injuries that would fell a normal man. By establishing that the only way to kill them is with a gunshot to the head, Romero’s make-up effects team is given free reign to create a gruesome variety of rotting, mangled corpses that dazzle even in the soft, black-and-white photography of the final film. Speaking of photography, Romero’s camera work during sequences depicting the zombies is phenomenal. My favorite shot is most certainly of the zombie that Ben spikes in the eye, twisting to the left as the zombie stumbles back, revealing more advancing behind him as the shot goes from a medium close-up to a wide, all in one motion.

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Another of Romero’s tricks to make the most of his limited budget was the use of exposition in the script. Both Ben and Harry tell stories of their brushes with the undead, with Ben’s painting a particularly detailed scene of fiery slaughter, in both a triumph of world-building dialogue and of Duane Jones’ acting prowess. The rest of the exposition is provided by a series of well-produced news reports, both on the radio and the television, opening up Romero’s narrative without having to leave the house, therefore preserving the money available for the shoot and the sense of overriding claustrophobia that Night is so well known for.

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Since it’s theatrical exhibition in 1968, Night has had countless home video releases, due to the unfortunate loss of copyright on the film. Out of these numerous releases have come several different versions of the film. First, colorizations: Hal Roach Studios, in the 1980s and 1990s, released two different colorized editions of Night, and a third was produced by Legends Studios. As for wholly new edits, there are two distinct flavors to choose from: the John Russo Collector’s Edition, and the Survivor’s Cut.

The Collector’s Edition, written, produced, and directed by original co-writer John Russo, features a new musical score and 15 minutes of new scenes shot in 1998. The new scenes, featuring prominently a priest who is bitten but does not become a zombie, are absolutely horrid to watch, not blending in at all with the original footage and featuring truly abysmal acting. Even worse, 15 minutes of original footage are cut to make room for the additions. I would recommend that you stay away from this version, or at least stick to the alternative cut to this release, the ’98 Cut, the original film with the new score, housed on the same disc.

The Survivor’s Cut, a fan edit by Dean Lachiusa, is an interesting case, one I can’t really comment on given that I have not seen it yet. From the official description:

The original free Internet demo released as the “Night of the Living Dead: SURVIVOR’S CUT” features a remixed version (72 minutes long) with additional footage added, and several scenes digitally tinted for dramatic effect. The box-DVD release is a benevolent project that is designed to generate royalties for the creators of public domain and orphan films, it is called the “Benefit for the Living Dead.”

The Survivor’s Cut can be obtained on Amazon.

I don’t believe I need to state again just how influential Night of the Living Dead truly was. Overnight, a new horror subgenre emerged, countries and religious groups banned the film for it’s horrifying destruction of cinematic taboos, and a little-known filmmaker named George Romero suddenly found himself with a big career. If you are one of those who hasn’t seen the film and is wondering what all the Walking Dead hubbub is about, sit down in front of this little grayscale gem on a late night. Just don’t forget to board up your doors and windows.