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: Independence Day (1996)

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Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Judd Hirsch, Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, Margaret Colin, Vivica A. Fox

A bonefide 90s blockbuster, a certified pop culture phenomenon, and a patriotic mainstay of 4th of July movie marathons nationwide. Can you get anymore entertaining than Independence Day?

On July 2nd, communications systems worldwide are sent into chaos by a strange atmospheric interference, revealed to be gigantic spacecraft, piloted by a mysterious alien species. After attempts to communicate with the aliens go nowhere, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), an ex-scientist turned cable technician, discovers that the aliens are going to attack major points around the globe in less than a day. On July 3rd, the aliens all but obliterate New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as Paris, London, Houston and Moscow. The survivors set out in convoys towards Area 51, a strange government testing ground where the military has a captured alien spacecraft of their own. The survivors, led by the President of the United States (Bill Pullman), devise a plan to fight back against the enslaving aliens, and July 4th becomes the day humanity will fight for its freedom from extermination.

With ID4, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin established themselves as the big budget dream team of the 1990s. Taking in over $300 million in the box office and becoming as equally big a hit on video, ID4 is still fondly remembered by most moviegoers today. Sure, some critics still turn their noses to it, but by now, one has to admire the staying power this one has.

And this is directly attributed to Emmerich and Devlin, whose script balances any of the cheesier aspects of the alien invasion genre with disaster film tropes and surprisingly sharp drama. Devlin is on record as stating that, “you can have the greatest special effects shot in existence, but if you don’t care for the characters, it won’t matter at all.” Luckily he was able to live by his words in this instance, because his characters are all as top-rate as possible in a film like this.

In his first post-Fresh Prince role, Will Smith swoops in as one of the three main protagonists, holding his own against Golblum and Pullman. Though Goldblum’s character David is my favorite of the bunch, Smith’s macho air captain Steven Hiller is riot to watch and laugh at. And that sense of fun only gets better once they both pair up for their final mission, cramped together in an alien ship, matching wit for gut-busting wit.

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Pullman’s character, President Whitmore, is a different beast: written to be a largely ineffective leader who is bullied around by his more ambitious Secretary of Defense (James Rebhorn), Pullman conveys enough of a heart to be genuinely likable and sympathetic, even if as an Executive he makes the worst decisions ever.

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Rounding out the ensemble cast are a collection of some of the finest character actors and topical stars of the time, including solid performances from Loggia and Colin. Randy Quaid, however, is the main scene stealer, followed by a pleasant surprise in Brent Spiner, who relishes getting out of his Data persona to play a hilariously-eccentric Area 51 scientist.

But the main draw, really, behind ID4 was the impressive array of visual and special effects on display. ID4 was made at an interesting time in the industry, in which Jurassic Park had just displayed what was possible with photo-realistic CGI. ID4 happily took advantage of the technology, present in the swarms of alien attackers and F/A-18s buzzing in and out of the frame. Emmerich, however, thankfully preserves a heavy in-camera miniature element, and this decision pays dividends. Many of the buildings and cities erupting in spectacular explosions are scale models and pyrotechnics, and they still are as breathtaking as they were back in the day. The White House’s destruction even became an indelible cultural image, thanks to the saturation of the moment in the film’s marketing. The visual effects earned an Academy Award in 1997.

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ID4 is available in the home video market with two versions, the 145-minute theatrical version and the 155-minute Special Edition. The theatrical cut is already a well-put-together, narratively solid piece, so any added material in the Special Edition, even when fleshing out Quaid’s role, feels somewhat redundant. It doesn’t help that the sound mix in these scenes seems to be incomplete, and the excellent pacing of the first act is the most shattered by additions. I recommend the theatrical cut heartily.

All in all, ID4 is still a blast to watch. The humor is on-point without overbearing the natural drama, the special effects are still convincing, and the musical score by David Arnold has aged very well. I honestly can’t find any fatal faults with the picture. If you’re looking for a good War of the Worlds-style throwback that isn’t a stretch for non-viewers of sci-fi in general, Independence Day is your ticket.

REVIEW: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

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Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Steven Spielberg
Starring Richard Dreyfuss, Francois Truffaut, Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey

Sandwiched in between two of the greatest works of his career, Jaws and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while recognized as a significant and important film, doesn’t enjoy nearly as much popularity and exposure in pop culture as those other two films. This is quite the shame, as Close Encounters represents some of the finest work Spielberg has ever accomplished.

Cableman Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is one of several people who experience a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. He is subsequently haunted by a mountain-like image in his head and becomes obsessed with discovering what it represents, putting severe strain on his marriage. Meanwhile, government agents around the world have a close encounter of the second kind, discovering physical evidence of otherworldly visitors in the form of military vehicles that went missing decades ago suddenly appearing in the middle of nowhere. Roy, the agents, and a desperate mother named Jillian (Melinda Dillon) follow the clues they have been given to reach a site where they will have a close encounter of the third kind: contact.

Coming hot off the mega success of Jaws, Spielberg turned his attention for his fourth effort to the stars, revisiting an old idea of his centered around the UFO phenomenon. After many un-credited rewrites from such writers as Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, Spielberg’s pet project transformed from Watch the Skies, the story of a government agent’s attempts to contact aliens, to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, featuring the more decidedly blue-collar, everyman characters of Richard Deyfuss’s Roy Neary and Melinda Dillon’s Jillian Guiler. A most fortunate decision, as this shift into the ordinary Americana gives Close Encounters a wonderfully nostalgic flavor to complement its out-of-this-world premise.

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Structured into three distinct acts, Close Encounters begins by introducing the three sets of main characters in the midst of some truly remarkable and unexplainable happenings. French director Francois Truffaut, in a rare acting role, plays an official named Lacombe, working with clandestine government agents who are beginning to discover signs that an extrasolar intelligence may be ready to make contact. At the same time, in the suburbs of Muncie, Indiana, Jillian Guiler’s young son Barry takes off into the night after unseen playmates from the sky, and Roy Neary experiences the fright of his life while on the roads during a power outage. Both of their extraordinary sightings change their lives completely, especially in the case of Roy, whose journey to learn the source of a persistent vision of a nameless mountain becomes the crux of the second act.

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The first act is a masterclass of setup writing. Lacombe’s team are introduced in a mysterious Mexican set piece that adds to an already palpable sense of mystery and intrigue before an impressive transition takes the audience to an air traffic control room, where operators are held on the edge of their seats listening to a UFO encounter reported by two different commercial airliners. Much of the first half of the film is skillfully packed with the cultural zeitgeist of the UFO phenomenon and its corresponding conspiracy theories, making Close Encounters perhaps a sort of precursor to Chris Carter’s infamous television series The X-Files.

Image result for close encounters of the third kind royWhere Spielberg’s touch comes in is with the second act, displaying Roy’s descent into near madness by both the unshaking vision and his obsession with finding some shred of proof that he wasn’t just seeing things that night. Some of Spielberg’s most well-known narrative trademarks begin here, most notably the absent father, personified in Roy’s forsaking of family life in pursuit of the truth. These scenes, often juxtaposed with flashes of brilliant humor by Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr as his bewildered wife Ronnie, begin to set the film apart from its ufological brethren, which seem more concerned with blood-sucking monsters or evil humanoids bent on universal domination. Close Encounters is a film with two ambitions: to present as scientific and realistic a depiction of the UFO phenomenon as possible, and to provide a family drama that seems to exorcise some of Spielberg’s own personal demons.

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The third act, seeing Roy and Jillian close in on a secret government operation by Lacombe’s team at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, is where the sci-fi roots of the picture take center stage. For a good 40 minutes of the final runtime, Roy and Jillian are witness to Lacombe’s attempt to make contact with the aliens with the use of musical motifs that they have been using during their repeated visits to Earth. In this sequence, typical science fiction archetypes of natural technological progression and utopian ideals are married with Judeo-Christian symbolism to present Roy with the ultimate door to the Heavens. It’s an increasingly wonderful vision of cinema that just builds and compounds as the viewing unfolds.

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Just as important as the narrative are the technical lords of the film, best personified in cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull, and composer John Williams. Zsigmond’s photography is vast array of landscapes, ranging from far-flung deserts with unexplainable sights to everyday suburban life, and not once does his camera falter and present an insincere image. On-set lighting effects, especially during the third act, blend convincingly with Trumbull’s work, which employs the same kind of lens flare-inducing spotlighting that would later make his work on Blade Runner so memorable. Undoubtedly, however, Williams would prove to be the MVP of the three, with a score that successfully combines eerie, alien drones and swells with his signature, classical orchestra sound. His score on Close Encounters is a marvel, and easily ties with the original Star Wars score for his best work.

Despite the sheer excellence of the film, Spielberg felt that it was compromised by a reduced schedule, and in 1980 successfully lobbied Columbia Studios to allow him to finish shooting several sequences to complete the picture. Released as the Special Edition, it incorporates seven minutes of new footage while deleting or reordering several sequences from the original theatrical version. The reordering works very well, spreading the disparate journeys of Roy and Lacombe evenly across the second act whilst trimming some unneeded fat. However, one sequence in particular, Roy’s destruction of his house by the introduction of all sorts of trash to build his Devil’s Tower replica, has been foolishly removed by a squeamish Spielberg. Even worse, Columbia required him to shoot a new ending depicting the interior of the mothership as Roy enters it, killing the mystery while stopping the perfect emotional climax cold. Luckily, Spielberg was as bothered by these choices as I was, and in 1998, released a third cut known as the Director’s Cut, incorporating most of the better Special Edition cuts and ordering while thankfully reinserting Roy’s trash collection and omitting the mothership interior. All versions are readily available on DVD and blu-ray in collector’s sets.

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One of the earliest films I remember watching over and over again as a child was Close Encounters. The little astronaut in me couldn’t get enough to the alien ships buzzing overhead, and its Indiana suburban setting was almost identical to my Ohio home, which certainly helps me get all nostalgic watching it now. Along with Star Wars and later Blade Runner, I consider it to be one of my “cinematic parents,” forming in me a deep fascination and curiosity with the universe above my head. How appropriate it is that Close Encounters, as Spielberg has so often articulated, seems to be told from a youthful viewpoint, a sentiment best exemplified by Barry opening the door to welcome the alien travelers into his house. While his mother reacts with fear, Barry is unafraid, trusting the light as only a child can. Much can be said of the frankly unwise and hurtful effect Roy’s decisions had upon his family, but in the end, one has to put aside these adult notions and approach Close Encounters as young Barry would. This film is all about the childhood wonder of the world around us, and as Roy walks into the light, joining his metaphorical Gods as an orphan would his long-lost parents, I still shed tears of joy on my living room couch. It is a wonderful vision, and one I am unafraid to hang on to, forever.

REVIEW: Haywire (2011)

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Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Lem Dobbs
Starring Gina Carano, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum, Bill Paxton, Michael Angarano, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas

Ah, my first Steven Soderbergh review of the Movie Maestro. Been looking forward to this, wondering off and on which film of his would draw the first honor. And that film is Haywire, the action-packed spy thriller that introduced to the cinematic world that pioneer of women’s mixed martial arts, Gina Carano.

Freelance covert operative Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is hired out by her handler to various global entities to perform jobs which governments can’t authorize and heads of state would rather not know about. After a mission to rescue a hostage in Barcelona, Mallory is quickly dispatched on another mission to Dublin. When the operation goes awry and Mallory finds she has been double crossed, she needs to use all of her skills, tricks and abilities to escape an international manhunt, make it back to the United States, protect her family, and exact revenge on those that have betrayed her.

Ask any Soderbergh fan why they love him so much, and invariably, the answer will be his cool, minimalist style. Haywire is an actioner that benefits heavily from his milky smooth touch with camerawork and editing; I wish more action directors were like him. Every set piece is clean and simple, allowing Carano and her exquisite stunt work (she did them all on her own, of course) to take center stage, free of the stupid, unnecessary shaky camerawork that plagues the action genre these days.

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The screenplay by Lem Dobbs matches Soderbergh’s visual punch with a deft, swift narrative that bounces between flashbacks telling the bulk of the story and the framing flight of Mallory and innocent bystander Scott (Michael Angarano) in his car. While most audiences seemingly didn’t appreciate the story, feeling it to be too hard to follow, but I disagree with the masses yet again. It doesn’t spoon-feed its audience, rather, it tells you only what you need to know, letting the plot naturally unravel, like the best of the classic spy thrillers from the days of Hitchcock and early James Bond.

Image result for Haywire filmSoderbergh’s other trademark, a highly capable cast, is also on prominent display, with regulars Tatum and Douglas supporting MacGregor, Banderas, Fassbender, and Paxton. In reality, however, all of these incredible actors are playing the supporting fiddle to Carano as the main star of the film. This is a bold and uniquely feminist move, swapping the normal action dynamic clean across gender lines. To put it bluntly, it’s like watching Jane Bond and her gaggle of Bond Boys. It’s actually quite fun, especially when any number of the confident men underestimate Mallory.

I don’t know if Mallory herself works as well as the concept, however. Carano is extremely commanding in the combat scenes, but does tend to fall more on the flat side in the more quiet dialogue pieces. It doesn’t help that apparently her voice was significantly altered in post, although I do not know to what extent this affected the performance. I also have found references to Laura San Giacomo, another Soderbergh regular, having overdubbed her voice, however I cannot find proof and there are other contradictory statements on this matter. In short, this being Carano’s first film, she isn’t exactly A-grade material yet.

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This doesn’t discount Haywire‘s strengths. It’s a tight and fun spy film, smart in execution and filled with enough action to please die-hard enthusiasts. All in all, it’s a worthy addition to Soderbergh’s catalog, and a great 90-minute stunt film to fill an evening with.