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: The Interview (2014)

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Directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg
Written by Dan Sterling, Story by Seth Rogan, Evan Goldberg, and Dan Sterling
Starring James Franco, Seth Rogan, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang, Timothy Simons

Remember December, 2015? When North Korea threatened global thermonuclear war over a comedy film? When cinemas were pulling it from bookings nationwide, and frat boys declared their uber-patriotism by downloading a movie? Remember when that was the craziest the news got? Those were the days.

Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) run the popular celebrity tabloid TV show “Skylark Tonight.” When they discover that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him in an attempt to legitimize themselves as journalists. As Dave and Aaron prepare to travel to Pyongyang, their plans change when the CIA recruits them, perhaps the two least-qualified men imaginable, to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

The Interview, originally conceived as both a satirical attack on shallow late night television and probably the most monstrous dictatorial regime currently on the face of the Earth, was obviously meant to be no more than a spiritual successor to the efforts of Trey Parker and the South Park creators, whilst staying firmly rooted in the metatextual comedy of Seth Rogan’s work. What it ended up becoming was an even bigger and more controversial piece than Rogan or Franco or co-director Evan Goldberg ever imagined. All because of the very man they were “killing” in their film. The resulting firestorm is worthy of a film story in of itself, interesting and funny in ways I still can’t believe, and that’s even after the bag of poo-fire we as a nation have suddenly found ourselves in by electing our own whiney man-child.

But this isn’t an editorial of the effects of The Interview, this is a review, and while I can’t gloss over the impact it has already had, I can place it on the back-burner and return to why I’m typing this out in the first place.

Rogan and Goldberg, along with screenwriter Dan Sterling, pull no punches from the very beginning with an incredibly anti-American song sung by a beautiful young voice on the eve of yet another nuclear missile test in North Korea. It’s a scene that seems wildly over-the-top and unrealistic, but given the hermit-like nature of North Korea and the oppression of the Kim family that makes Orwell’s corpse wish he’d thought of it, the whole sequence could very much be true. It’s a strange world we live in, is what I’m trying to say.

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After a barrage of serious news coverage documenting the strike, we slam-cut the opposite end of the media spectrum: Dave Skylark, a narcissistic party boy who somehow found himself on television, then proceeded to rape the very concepts of integrity and importance by doing nothing more than interviewing celebrities about their, frankly, worthless quirks. The only thing worse about Skylark than his null contributions to humanity at large is that he truly thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, pulling down his producer Aaron Rappaport, an excellent journalist whose potential is being wasted on Rob Lowe’s bald head. Right away, The Interview establishes itself as a very in-your-face brand of comedy, and while Franco’s endless monologues that elevate himself to godhood in his eyes come close to annoying the audience as much as the characters surrounding him, Rogan is there as his trademark straight man, showing us just how insane our priorities as a society are.

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When Dave becomes determined to book an interview with the infamous Kim Jong-un after hearing how much of a fan he is of the show, Aaron is forced to the dirty work, and before they know it, they have their scoop locked and scheduled. Then Lizzy Caplan shows up, representing the CIA with a push-up bra, fake glasses, and a smile, aiming to “honeypot” the two into assassinating Kim with a poison strip during the interview. It’s classic American shadiness filtered through Rogan’s raunchy style, and they accept, with Aaron thinking about the contribution to human history they are undertaking, while Dave can only ponder what gun he will use and what title his tell-all book will have.

From here, the film gets even more meta, possibly explaining what exactly happened to Dennis Rodman during his visit; Dave and Aaron are shown facade after facade of lies pertaining to Korea’s welfare, and Dave is further seduced by the familiarity of Kim, played hilariously as an immature idiot with daddy issues that he buries with margaritas and women by Randall Park, an actor with already limited masculine charisma who nonetheless comes across as way more manly than the actual Kim. Through all of this, we still get the steady diet of Rogan and Goldberg raunch and poo jokes, which ends up tying together nicely with the satire in a climax that is incredibly fantastic, bloody, and over-the-top (more so than even the opening), but not entirely unexpected, given the nature of the film.

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So how did a film like this become way more than what it should have been, which is good, but not news-worthy? Because the world is a hellfire of insanity, ladies and gentlemen, which was proven in sweeping form by theaters pulling the film from their bookings before its release date, fearful of provoking a war with Korea. Somebody should have told them that North Korea threatens war every weekend as a hobby, but the message was eventually received, sparking off as opposite a response to the pullings as Skylark’s hollow charm is to the grave situation of North Korea’s citizens. Art-house cinemas and smaller theaters began pledging to show the film, streaming and download services began offering it, and couch patriots the nation over declared it our duty as citizens to watch and disseminate a run-of-the-mill comedy film. I told you, the world is weird.

In the end, we did get an entertaining and funny film, one that plays around with genre, society, and politics in enough measure to counterbalance the juvenile nature of its core comedic content. I don’t know if it was worth an international incident, but I’d be more than willing to go back to that “simpler” time.

Fan Edit Review: Dune: Third Stage Edition

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Original Film Written and Directed by David Lynch
Fan Edit by PhineasBG
Category: Extended Edition

Dune is a literary science fiction masterpiece whose definitive cinematic portrayal is still elusive. Much can be said about the aborted attempts made at bringing the first novel to the screen, and while the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries may have been a bit more accurate in the events depicted within its runtime, David Lynch’s 1984 theatrical effort is still a fascinating piece of work.

Unfortunately, even a definitive version of this film doesn’t truly exist. Lynch’s theatrical version was about 2 hours long, which meant that the meat of its narrative was severely trundcated by studio demands for a more commercial picture. When an extended cut was commissioned for television, the resultant mess of bad pacing, repeated special effects shots, and rough shape of the restored footage led to Lynch disowning that version, leaving it to be credited to the dreaded ‘Alan Smithee.’

Enter fan editor PhineasBG. While there are several other Dune fan edits out there, most attempt to bring the film more in line with the novel, while one attempts to recreate what the pre-release workprint might have been like. The Third Stage Edition is something else entirely. Working from a widely-available shooting script and utilizing footage from both cuts and the selection of deleted scenes from the Special Edition DVD released in 2006, Third Stage aims to restore what is presumed to be Lynch’s actual director’s cut.

Being the first fan edit I ever got my hands on, I was plenty excited to experience it, and I was not disappointed. The story now feels complete and epic, coming in just under 3 hours but suffering none of the repetition of the extended edition. Most of the deleted scenes restored are incredibly welcome, most especially the extended bits of the climax, for example the death of Thufir Hawat and Paul claiming Irulan as his wife. There are still problems inherent to Lynch’s version, which include the incredibly short amount of time Paul and Chani fall in love, and the pacing around Jessica’s taking of the Water of Life, but with no surviving examples of that footage, PhineasBG did his best, and his best is still wonderful.

Even only being available on DVD, the picture and sound quality are surprisingly good for its age. Black levels are inconsistent, but the picture retains its color and has pretty good resolution for the format, having been sourced from 720p. The extended edition footage, long missing the blue-within-blue eye FX, has been restored digitally. No more Fremen continuity errors. Deleted scenes are still a bit rough and scratchy compared to the rest of the picture, but again, this is the way it is when the source footage is unrestored. I can’t expect everyone to be Harmy.

The sound mix is deep and bassy, enough to shake the house when turned up. Some people aren’t a fan of this, but I love hearing the speakers rumble. Another big thing to note is that whenever possible, the theatrical cut audio is used on the sountrack, as the extended edition made some rather nonsense changes to the audio that frankly left me scratching my head. Bravo, PhineasBG.

Sadly, however, this is the part where I must break the bad news. The Third Stage Edition seems to be unavailable. There is one peer-to-peer sharing copy of a lower-quality video file, but there are no seeders, and that appears to be all she wrote. I will be holding onto my DVD copy tightly now. PhineasBG himself has stated that if the Extended Cut were to ever be released on Blu-ray, that he would recreate the edit in HD. Now, a year ago I would have told you not to hold your breath, but with the new Denis Villeneuve version underway and looking like a real possibility, perhaps in a year or two it might actually happen. We’ll just have to see. In the meantime, I hear that the Alternative Edition Redux by Spicediver is similar in execution, but without having seen it, I can’t speak to that.

Until then, if anybody reading this happens to find it again, please shoot me an email!