Dunkirk: An Assault on the senses

Recommendation of YES

Summary: The film tells a triptych of stories on land, sea and air about the successful military retreat of Dunkirk.

 

A friend of mine was confused as to the relative brevity of Dunkirk (a zippy 106 minutes) having expected it to be 2h 30 min as all modern blockbusters are somehow required to be. I jokingly asked if, since Christopher Nolan billed Dunkirk as a thriller and not a war movie, he would be able to survive three hours of tightly wound tension. As it happens, he barely survived the 1 hour 46 minutes.

So the above is quite an opening, and may raise expectations for Dunkirk to be some sort of demolishing assault on the audience, one that would be irresponsible to extend in length lest it kill someone. These are expectations that no multi million dollar wide release film can live up to, but Dunkirk is, if not the most tense thing, a harrowing, tense thing nonetheless.

Right from the first, Dunkirk punctures the quiet of some obligatory historical film exposition cards with the sound of gunfire from the spectre of an advancing German army (unseen save for their aircraft that periodically molest the evacuees) and through a near persistent audio visual assault on the audience, never quite relents. Be it through the loud cracking of gunfire, the whir and creaking of ships and their engines, the howling and roaring of the areal assault, the panicked and pained screams of dying soldiers (mostly also left off screen so you can imagine the horror), or Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score that comes complete with the sound of a ticking clock, Dunkirk uses its sound design to present a suffocating intensity that is evocative and impressionistic in the sense that Nolan only sometimes achieved with Interstellar. Though the success of Dunkirk over Interstellar may also be because they have somewhat opposite approaches to delivering the film experience to the audience.

Where Interstellar was an exposition and dialogue heavy film with unintelligible dialogue, the narrative, such as it is, of Dunkirk has been kept purposefully thin and divvied up into a triptych with three different time scales. Firstly we have “The Mole” (herein describing a solid structure that is often used as a pier, and not a spy), detailing one week in the life of 400,000 British soldiers as they attempt to evacuate while German forces push through French defenses. Secondly, we have “The Sea”, detailing the day long voyage Little Ships that the British Navy requisitioned to aid the evacuation. Thirdly we have “The Air” depicting 1 hour of three spitfire pilots engaging German fighters and bombers in intense dog fights to protect the rescue ships and soldiers on the beach.

Each of these segments focuses on just a handful of individual characters, though it would be fair and accurate to say they are almost entirely thinly characterized. They are there for one purpose, to let the audience vicariously experience the horrors of the evacuation. Without this narrowed perspective, and without the characters being somewhat tabula rasa, Dunkirk could not do what Dunkirk sets out to do. For the very point of the thing is to be a purely cinematic emotional experience of war rather than any specific narrative with any particular themes or arcs to explore.

I have in the past said that Christopher Nolan does not do emotion well; that his films were puzzles and exercises in cinematic mechanics. I do for the most part stand by that, but I must admit that Dunkirk bucks the trend. That is to say in as much as pervasive anxiety is an emotion, and Dunkirk trades in pervasive anxiety, it is perhaps the most authentically emotionally affecting Christopher Nolan film I have seen.

Even the mechanical experimentation one would expect from a Nolan Joint serves as a means of maintaining tension. As noted  above, the film is a triptych that operates at differing time scales. They are constantly cross cut between rather than shown chronologically, only to eventually have them converge by the film’s climax. This converging of the narrative threads serves to bring the film to its emotional climax as well. Due to the differing time scales, the constant cross cutting never allows you to orient yourself in time and space. When we are in a sinking ship next to the mole at night, we may then end up in a late afternoon dog fight over nondescript ocean before finally settling upon a pleasure yacht plucking up a shell shocked soldier off the skeleton of a sinking warship.

Dunkirk is a constant anxiety engine. Its mission statement is to depict a constant state of anarchy spawned from war, and it does so audio-visually with minimal dialogue through blank slate characters at a level that someone smarter than I may say is approaching “Pure Cinema”, being elemental sound and motion with little reliance on exposition. Or probably not. That too may be overselling things, but it does its anxiety making well while looking great and sounding even better.

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Skipping Class

Recommendation of Yes

Synopsis: The surrogate son of a perennial billionaire industrialist fuck up goes to to to with a blue collar family man that his surrogate father’s overreaching amends making put out of business, serving only to break things, endanger lives and destroy a mostly innocent family.

Yep, Peter Parker is kind of a screw up. He constantly flubs the landing, destroys property, is responsible not once, not twice, but at least three times for endangering the lives of innocents through recklessness, and answers back to his surrogate dad about how he doesn’t understand and won’t treat him like an adult. You know, typical 15 year old boy stuff.

Okay, I was being glib, but if I am being honest, this one movie does a far better job of depicting what happens when an irresponsible person tries to do good outside of due process than all three Iron Man films and Age of Ultron combined. Peter does tend to screw up spectacularly. You know, when you stop to think about it, the MCU can go to kind of dark places without the need to wallow in dour self-seriousness like the worst of the DCEU… But I guess on the other hand, their reliance on safe formula and quip-heavy flippancy does kind of get in the way of all of that hinted at darkness. Either that or they feel like dull homework assignments for the bigger films.

So then colour me delighted when Homecoming’s biggest strengths are that it plays with formula so drastically, while managing to be relatively self contained and tiny feeling. Right down to the absence of glowing CGI doom in the climax.

If you did didn’t remember his introduction, Spider-Man: Homecoming kicks off Peter Parker’s story with a mobile phone recording of the airport fight from Captain America: Civil War. And if I were being unfair, I would say that Homecoming wins points for reminding  me of a better movie. But if I am being honest, I’d have to say that Homecoming does some key things much better than Civil War (i.e. probably having the first genuinely well considered villain in the MCU). And that’s about as much introduction as you’re going to get to Peter Parker. There is no origin story, the spider is long since dead and is dispensed with in a single short exchange, and we don’t have to sit through yet another Uncle Ben (though at one point Tony Stark comes dangerously close to paraphrasing him).

This movie’s narrative arc for Peter is that of a super hero sequel where an already accepted hero has his wits and abilities tested, shortcomings highlighted, and has to rise to the occasion. And in fact, the film’s origin story arc is given to its villain, Michael Keaton as some kind of birdman (The Vulture to be precise). He is introduced in an inciting incident as an average blue collar worker trying to look out for his family and employees, but who is put in a horrible financial situation due to Tony Stark colluding with the US government to take over all clean up duties post Avengers. As a result of him being given the narrative arc usually reserved to a first time super hero, he’s developed into one of the most layered and sympathetic villains in all MCU; a family man at odds with big business and trying to provide for his family and his employees. The Vulture is nothing more than the avatar of a man trying desperately to provide for those who depend on him by any means necessary. Enough screen time is spent with him outside of the suit that he is fleshed out as a human being. And one of these sequences is a claustrophobic and steadily simmering sequence in a car that allows Keaton to do some capital A acting.

And then you see his house with “so many windows”. I can’t particularly fault Spider-Man: Homecoming for introducing politically charged subtext and then fluffing it with what it actually shows off as the characters’ on screen truths, given that Civil War was probably a bigger offender (and the less we talk about the muddled politics of Batman v Superman, the better). But there was more character truth behind the anti big business/big government posturing of Keaton’s Vulture and his gang of merry arms dealers than in the pro vs anti registration kerfuffle of Civil War, until a third act twist puts a damper on it in favour of pulling the rug out from under Peter Parker. Given this is Spider-Man: Homecoming, and not a treatise on capitalism driving men to do morally questionable things, it’s probably for the best. That doesn’t stop the film from being reasonably pointed, and one could argue, posturing at superficial profundity about it in the early goings given it ultimately ends up going no where.

All that said, Homecoming really sings in the small moments. Bits of acerbic comedy are mined from its teenage supporting cast, poking and prodding at Peter in various ways, be it jovial and jocular, or antagonistic. A wonderful, if small contribution by Hannibal Buress as a put upon gym coach, brief asides about a teacher previously having a student die on him on a field trip, and the aforementioned bits with Keaton and co., make up for the otherwise mostly flat action. With the exception of the Stanton Island Ferry sequence shown off in the trailers, there is nothing particularly exceptional, and even then Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2’s train sequence far exceeds it in scope and emotional impact. But it’s really the playfulness and small scale that makes Spider-Man: Homecoming feel fresh, even if in the grand scheme of things, the MCU has offered us better (see Guardians of the Galaxy, all three Captain America films, for example). The willingness to go small, even with its Captain America “cameos” and its stinger are a shot in the arm for what could otherwise have been simply adequate. Ant-Man was adequate, Spider-Man: Homecoming is in some way approaching charming. And honestly, for what is the third rendition of this franchise on the silver screen in recent memory, that is a mighty fine victory.

Kong: Skull Island

Recommendation: YES

Summary: Japanese and American World War 2 pilots crashland on a beach and promptly resume trying to kill each other until they are rudely interrupted by a living, breathing challenge to their sense of significance. Flash forward to the end of the Vietnam War and a ragtag team of scientists, a mercenary, a photojournalist, and disgruntled soldiers take part in a “geologic survey” of an unexplored island. Things go wrong.

Would you take this moment to once again welcome King Kong, grandpappy of the American movie monsters, to the cutting edge of trends in big budget Western film making. In this case, the cutting edge is not the bloat and operatic excess of Peter Jackson’s 2005 entry, nor the mind blowing technical wizardry of the 1933 original. No, in this case it’s the trend of plucking up unproven indie film makers with one or two tiny movies under their belt and unmaking their individuality in the fires of Hollywood. Double points for Kong: Skull Island being an entry in one of the very many shared cinematic universe exercises (see Marvel, DC, the Universal Monsters, to an extent Star Wars, and now Transformers?). But I’ll be damned if this film didn’t manage to sneak a bit of persinality in with its monster meyham, much in kind with Gareth Edwards’ Franchise-mate Godzilla (2014). I can’t rightly say whether it’s capital G good or not, but its a heck of a lot more than what the tepid Jurassic World could muster.

So, personality, eh? While Godzilla ’14 was a more slow paced (though some would say glacial), Spielbergian movie with a clear affection for its monsters and a tremendous sense of scale, Kong: Skull Island is tontent to be this weird little pastiche of Vietnam War movies, adventure/monster pictures, and exploitation cinema. There aren’t many PG-13 studio tentpoles that visually evoking something else involving a pole from Cannibal Holocaust. And it’s this “deplorable excess of personality,” to quote a Spielberg film that both Kong and Godzilla quote, that keeps Kong: Skull Island interesting long after its stand out first set piece with Kong.

It is worth noting that muck like Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is sparing win its use of its titular beast. However, they differ in that Kong: Skull Island reveals its hand early (King Kong is on screen within the first 5 or so minutes) and its forward momentum. The film is littered with little bits of action that serve to make Skull Island itself an antagonist of sorts. It may come across as episodic at times given its poor human drama, but there is always some sort of threat around the corner as our hapless human cast come face to face with some unpleasant mega fauna. Credit where credit is due, there is a consideration and care put into the creature design that suggests a working ecosystem that is often missing in films that focus on making eerything look as “cool” or deadly as possible.

This does mean that for stretches it feels like the film is more interested in the way in which the environment conspires against the humans than the humans themselves. Outside of the broadest of strokes, this is true. There is an element of political subtext about the villification of soldiers by the media and the US government’s failure to be serious about the fate of its veterans. Every now and then there are flashes of the characters presenting with PTSD. And once in a while, the film comes close to being a genre film take on teh Vietnam War in the vein of Aliens, with low tech enemies ambushing and overwhelming a high tech military detachment.

And then Kong: Skull Island decides to go off and kill off its cast in sudden, gruesome ways, with no comment other than that it is possibly amusing that this moment that would be big in any other movie was totally deflated by a subversion showing the pointlessness of it all.

Having had time to dwell on the film, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as successful at being a “Post-Human” blockbuster as Godzilla, but through different means. While Godzilla focused its attention on the monsters and impressed with its excellent sense of scale, making the human characters feel like insignificant lookers on, Kong: Skull Island never quite masters scale in much the same way. Aside from an early bout between Kong and helicopters, it is rather hard to get a read on how large the beasties are in comparison to the humans. No, Kong: Skull Island is post-human by virtue of its constant winking insistence that at best, humans are a minor annoyance, and at worst, their actions are pitiful and utterly meaningless.

As I said, I can’t tell if all of this is a “good” thing or not, but I can say that it’s fucking weird and commits to its weirdness as much as a franchise picture directed by a relative unknown can. At least much more than, for example, the half-assed satire of Jurassic World, or the defanged Robocop remake. And I’d take fucking weird over polished blandkess any day.

If it continues apace, the MonsterVerse will be one to watch; and the news of the attachment of Michael Dougherty to 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters has me very hopeful indeed.

Wonder Woman

Recommendation: YES

Summary: A US born British spy by the name of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashlands off the coast of a hidden island inhabited by Amazons. Hearing his tales of a war without end (World War 1), Diana (Gal Gadot), an idealistic princess, decides to help Steve return to London with crucial intel on a deadly chemical weapon if he in turn will point her in the direction of the front so she can hunt down Ares, whom she believes is responsible for corrupting the minds of men and prolonging the war. Lessons are learnt.

Here we are, witness to the first unqualified good film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It is a shame that the most drastic about face I have witnessed in recent history had to be surrounded by the relative shittiness of the internet. Rest assured that there is no conspiracy here, no campaign against men. Women only screenings did not end the world, nor were they the responsibility of WB, so you can stop blaming them for it. That Wonder Woman was a film directed by a woman is not the most significant nor sole reason for its incredibly warm reception.

The answer to why we suddenly have a well received film in the DCEU is a bit simpler than that. Director Patty Jenkins (of Monster fame) is someone who understands that Wonder Woman as a character is an embodiment of love and compassion. Patty Jenkins isn’t David Ayer, a person whose filmography to date largely revolves around the “coolness” of self destructive or poisonous masculinity, or appeals to violence and power (that said, End of Watch is a genuinely good and character focused aesthetic experiment). Nor is she Zack Snyder, a Randian Objectivist who writes his worldview into characters diametrically opposed to it.

I would get into Suicide Squad, but its failings are so numerous and its production so troubled that I can’t rightly tell what is a result of Ayer’s philosophy and approach as a story teller, and what is resultant on, for example, Ayer being forced into completing the screenplay in 6 weeks, or the reshoots, or Trailer Park being hired to recut the film.

So let us discuss Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) for a moment and contrast its approach to that of Wonder Woman. BvS takes cues largely from The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel in which a Randian Batman eventually takes on a non-Randian Superman, who is rendered as a stooge for the government (because you are either smart enough to believe in ethical egoism, or you are a self sacrificing slave to an overreaching government). In BVS however, Batman is consumed with a rage and desire to prove himself a capable actor with agency and an ability to affect change from without, refusing to cooperate and uncaring of the fate of those he goes up against, as long as his ends are met. Superman is a pouty, put upon, selfish and capricious person of mass destruction. Snyder frames him in glorious, approaching iconic compositions, saving people and averting catastrophies, but forever with a scowl on his face. There’s an inherent disconnect between what the Words Say about how Superman is the best most altruistic of actors in this universe, and his actions that suggest he is doing so reluctantly out of a misplaced sense of obligation that both his mother and ghost father say he shouldn’t feel.

They are then pitted against each other in what the film insists is a battle of opposing ideologies, but in reality is Snyder taking two toys infused with his Objectivist world view, and smacking them together in a climax that is in no way climactic, and much less so when a second, tacked on climax fails to dazzle with so much CGI nonsense. Whatever good BvS brings to the table outside of Snyder’s penchant for framing beautiful compositions, is snuck in at the periphery (see Holly Hunter’s character trying to hold Superman accountable for acting unilaterally with no oversight in and outside the United States), and then too only at the level of individual scenes.

But Wonder Woman offers an uncluttered, focused, self contained narrative with a simple thesis that it explores at both the level of character, and a higher thematic level. The film makes it its business to posit that displaying love and compassion for your fellow man in the face of their shittiness is the one thing for anyone ever to strive for, no matter their origin. And it is this singular focus on its thesis that makes Wonder Woman an at times profoundly humane film watching experience. Wonder Woman, unlike the DCEU version of Batman or Superman is a character worth deifying. She is a character who will do what is right because it is what she ought to do, and this is no better exemplified than in the film’s stand out set piece, the No Man’s Land sequence. It has the most effective use of speed ramping to suggest the physicality and grandeur of comic book splash pages since Snyder’s own 300. It highlights the strength of Diana’s moral character through action rather than speechifying. It is a sequence in which the rousing score inspires awe rather than beating us over the head with a suggestion of unearned poetry. And it’s the most damned super hero-y sequence I have seen in a movie since, I don’t know, the bit with the train in Spider-Man 2. This is a movie that is operating on a level of quality in all domains that far exceeds anything the DCEU has offered to date. And Wonder Woman continues to operate at this level of quality until its obligatory CG nonsense climax.

And it’s also so adorable and affectionate about it’s characters. From the young Diana play acting at being a warrior with a look of wonder on her face, to the playful chemistry between her and Steve Trevor, there’s a genuine interest in the inner workings of its characters and the struggles they are facing. Even the rag tag group of misfits (a la, Captain America’s Howling Commandos) have moments hinting at an inner life. The actor turned spy who couldn’t make it big because of his race, the braggart sniper with what is fairly evidently PTSD, the opportunistic Native American smuggler who only does what he does because his people have been displaced by Americans and it’s his best option for making a living. All of this is handled so deftly that the complexities of these character arcs are set up, delivered, and paid off in relatively little screen time. This is a big budget event movie where the small, quiet scenes are just as powerful as the bombastic ones because they are all in service of character or theme. And when a movie can have you in rapt attention at a character playing the piano and singing out of key because of what it means for that character in particular, then it is doing something right.

It is this focus on characters that helps turn a functionally invincible one like Diana into an interesting one, even if almost every physical challenge she faces is trivial. Where Wonder Woman succeeds and BvS, or even Man of Steel failed is in establishing Diana’s core values and beliefs (that man is inherently good), and challenging it at every turn. Dramatic tension is maintained throughout the movie by playing Diana off against everything that surrounds her, including the characters that are ostensibly there to support her. What happens when push comes to shove and none of her compatriots believe in her conviction that Ares is the one pulling all the strings? What happens if she was wrong all along? Does it matter more or less if she keeps going? And how funny can we make a woman walking around early 20th Century London carrying a sword and a shield?

Okay, so turning Man of Steel into a fish out of water comedy may not have worked out as well as it did with Wonder Woman (owing in large part to the fantastic chemistry and performances of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine), but the main thing is the fish out of water-ness cuts both ways when it comes to the film’s drama, and this is something that the dramatically inert Man of Steel could have used. As she goes on her journey, she learns about the cycles if warfare and oppression of indigenous peoples, the existence of racism, the horrors of PTSD, to name a few things, and the film is refreshingly honest about its depiction. It doesn’t gloss over any of it, but simultaneously doesn’t get bogged down in the dour tone of BvS. “Yes, humans are shitty,” the film intones, “but that is not justification enough to turn your back and stop fighting for what is good and right. Not when there is still love in the world and a chance for a better future.” And this is a far less ugly message than what any of its contemporaries have managed to convey.

Alien: Covenant… Increasingly familiar

Recommendation: NO

Summary: Colonists find their ship hit by solar winds, leaving their captain toasted and the rest of the crew unwilling to reenter their cryosleep pods lest they befall the same fate. The acting captain, a man who believes his religion makes him untrustworthy in the eyes of the crew a mere 10 years after a devoutly religious person was part of the crew of the most expensive space expedition to that point, gives into popular demand to investigate a much closer, possibly hospitable planet rather than travelling their years long journey to their actual, safe destination. Due to terrible safety protocols, things go wrong.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Alien: Covenant is not a good film
  2. Alien: Covenant is not a good Alien film
  3. I prefer Prometheus to Alien: Covenant

If Prometheus is what happens when you take a slasher film and hurriedly retrofit it into a “thinking person’s science fiction film”, Alien: Covenant is what happens when you go the other way.

Be warned, if you were at all even the slightest bit interested in finding out why the Engineers created us and why they wanted to destroy us, prepare to be disappointed. That plot thread is hurriedly swept aside in a flashback in an attempt to course correct towards being more closely connected with the Alien franchise. But people hated Prometheus! Isn’t a course correction towards the rest of the franchise a good thing? Let’s take a moment to remember what else was part of the Alien franchise:

  • Alien 3
  • Alien Resurrection
  • AVP
  • AVP: R (I don’t remember what the R stood for, but it was probably Requiem or something equally terrible)

And let’s also take this moment to remind ourselves of a slow, ponderous science fiction film that Scott directed that wasn’t looked upon kindly until a few years later:

  • Blade Runner

Ultimately, what I am trying to say is that in the grand scheme of things, people don’t know shit; neither the authors, nor the audience.

And that is evident in Alien: Covenant. The ponderous core of Prometheus has been swapped out for that of a sleazy thriller, one that operates in the vague neighbourhood of Alien (complete with a condensed recreation of that first film in what passes for Covenant’s third act) after taking a detour through 80s slasher territory. People do stupid things for the sole purpose of delivering gory kills for the audience to enjoy, there is a lurid sex scene that gets bloodily interrupted, and the alien itself, far from being an unknowable walking metaphor for violation and sexual assault, is nothing but a bad special effect. They even managed to do the alien POV shot worse than it was done in Alien 3. Think on that.

Save for some two scenes of body horror (neither of which entirely approach the heights of the cesarean scene from Prometheus, though the first one gets close), the film is almost always better when the aliens are not on screen. In an Aliens movie. Prometheus at least had the good fortune of being distanced somewhat from Alien so it could be its own weird slow burn thing.

But aside from the aforementioned body horror and some effectively atmospheric gothic production design, Alien: Covenant is a film that puts on a show of being a horror film without actually committing to it. Everything else good about it comes as part of its past life as a Prometheus sequel. And all of its grandiose and “literary” discussions of the relationship between creator and created were better suited by Prometheus’ more consistently considered pacing. Sure, I did not think Prometheus got it right, but it sure as hell was better built to get it right than Alien: Covenant.

The one (two?) saving grace(s) of Alien Covenant is Michael Fassbender. This time playing a new Synthetic named Walter and returning as the creative and unhinged David, Fassbender electrifies the screen with his winning take on the uncanny valley. Affecting an American accent in something of a Lance Henrickson impersonation, Walter is a character that impresses in his coldness and restricted affect. And he is the perfect foil to David, a creature designed with a desire to create and understand. No better is this weird undercurrent of “humanity”, for lack of a better term, seen than in the film’s opening, a prologue introducing us to David’s first few hours. So much of the contempt between creator and created is suggested through reactions and body language as David prods and pokes at Peter Wayland’s insecurities about his mortality to see how far he can push and get away with it.

And then we have the scenes where the two synthetics interact. These sequences are crackling with an uncomfortable yet captivating “Platonic homoeroticism” while the two explore each others boundaries and try to seduce each other to their way of thinking. It really, really makes me wish the movie jettisoned the Alien connection altogether and became its own psychosexual thriller. But the aliens, creatures created out of unconvincing CGI, are the main draw, and Covenant: These Two Gay Robots are Totally Amazing would not a winning investment make.

And so we have part homoerotic thriller, part mad scientist movie (that totally robs the mystery of and defangs the Xenomorph), and part movie that dresses in the discarded skin of a gothic thriller by way of 80s slasher. A movie with no idea what to do with itself for an audience with no idea what is actually good for it. It’s time to put this franchise to bed before anymore damage is done to one of Cinema’s most iconic horror creations.

Monster Fest – The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Director: André Øvredal

Yes (Cat lovers/owners be warned though)

Summary: A father and son team conduct an autopsy on an unidentifiable, naked woman found half buried at the site of a multiple murder. Things go wrong.

 

The Autopsy of Jane Doe opens in a location it will never revisit. It is the site of a bizarre multiple murder that has the town’s Sheriff puzzled. He’s even more puzzled when his men find a half buried naked corpse in the basement, with seemingly no connection to the murders. One of his officers informs him with a mix of cheese and solemnity that there were no signs of a break in, in fact there were signs suggesting the murder victims were trying to break out!!!

The opening is ominous in a couple of ways, the most worrying of which are signs of a screenplay rich in cliche. It is just as well then that director André Øvredal has the good sense to focus on the more unique aspects of the premise, most obviously the whole autopsy thing. Speaking of, the film shifts to an underground location filled with aged rooms and tight corridors. This space is framed in a particularly claustrophobic way. While we’re being introduced to the setting of the remainder of the film, we are also being introduced to two of its three primary characters. It is reasonably standard stuff. The father is struggling to get over the death of his wife, the son wants to leave town and avoid following in his father’s footsteps, but the performances are strong enough to sell it. There is jokey verbal sparring and a sense of mentorship that underlies most interactions, making the relationship and by extension the characters feel lived in and authentic.

And then the third major character is rolled through the door. Yes, the Jane Doe corpse is a character in her own right. The way she is filmed, the way the editing gives her reaction shots to the bizarre goings on, make her feel aware and consciously manipulating her surroundings despite her entirely still and expressionless exterior.

But it’s her internals that drive the mystery of the film. The autopsy sequence fleshes out the father and son characters, while piling unlikely finding upon unnervingly unlikely finding. The autopsy is approached and filmed in such a clinical way that every new reveal stands in much stronger contrast to the natural order of things. They build upon each other and lead to a climactic finding that is deliciously creepy. And the excellent sound design, including a slowly growing storm and a malevolent and teasing radio slather the atmosphere on thick. It is almost Lovecraftian in its lack of cohesion with human rationality.

And then things hit the fan, and the film shifts tactics from building tension to delivering scares. Here’s where the problems start to raise their head. While the first half of the film was a slow burn relying on incongruence, the second half is a haunted house picture that’s a little too eager to go bump in the night. The longer the film goes on the more reliant it is on highly telegraphed jump scares. The screenplay justifies it as a malevolent force toying with its victims. It’s trying to rattle them and make them suffer rather than trying to kill them. But The Autopsy of Jane Doe gets dangerously close to becoming a one trick pony. An opening is created in a surface, a character looks through it, a few seconds of silence before BOO a face pops up into frame.

It takes a genuinely tense elevator sequence and a build up to a cliche ending that is viciously subverted for The Autopsy of Jane Doe to regain its footing. This is one of a few movies that attempts to explain what the malevolent force is without reducing its level of threat. And that’s because the characters still don’t know 1) if they can defeat what they are up against, 2) if they are even right about what it is. And it’s a fun way to end a reasonably smart single room supernatural thriller.

Monster Fest – Raw

Director: Julia Ducournau

(Yes: Go watch this if you enjoy genre films. Especially if you want to see more great movies directed by women)

Summary: A young vegetarian woman attends the same veterinarian school attended by her parents and currently attended by her older sister. During a hazing ritual, she is pressured by her sister to live up to her family’s legacy and partake in the eating of a raw rabbit liver. Things go wrong.

 

Raw is a striking directorial debut that is hard to pin down. It doesn’t want to stick with any one mood or tone for an extended period of time, choosing instead to wade drunkenly in and out of moments of queasy awkwardness, warm affection, dark humour, and surreal body horror. In the broadest of strokes, you can think of it as a coming of age dramady with a heaping mouthful of cannibalism used as a central metaphor.

And with the specter of cannibalism raised, there’s something I should probably address. I saw Raw at the Monster Fest Travelling Film Festival where it was introduced as a film that made its Cannes audience squirm and mutter with discomfort. There were reports of audience members fainting at a TIFF screening. And yes, some of the Monster Fest audience gasped during our screening. But, and this is important, Raw is not a particularly graphic cannibal movie. Gore hounds do know that whatever gore there is on screen is beautifully detailed and lovingly photographed, but do not go in expecting a splatter film. Most of the gasping occurred during particularly emotionally charged sequences rather than from gory money shots.

What is really impressive about Raw is the assured direction of Ducournau. Her film is an emotionally turbulent one with a keen eye for teasing out horror from mundanity, expressing feminine power and desire, and exploring the awkwardness and hilarity to be found in coming into your own. Whether it be the dark humour in a fellow student offering tips on purging after misunderstanding a traumatic event, the nastiness of verbal sparring between sisters, or the awkwardness and hilariousness of a particular scene involving a disembodied finger, Raw is anchored in a sense of emotional authenticity from the point of view of protagonist Justine. When Justine hungers, the camera leers over the topless body of her attractive room mate, dissecting him through strategic close ups of his muscular flesh, before just as strategically pulling back to show him in his totality. It is a sophisticated use of gaze to comment on a character’s inner conflict.

The film is so anchored to Justine’s POV that beyond making us complicit in her gaze, it makes us subject to her temporal and geographical understanding. When she gets more unhinged the more she indulges, the film gets more unhinged and indulgent. The result is a film that threatens to be coherent before slipping into a bizarre nightmare logic. We lose touch of our surroundings as Justine does. We exist in the moment, blacking out and coming to after some time has elapsed, much like Justine. The film keeps us on the back foot and when it does choose to have things in focus, they are either uncomfortable or surreal. The moments of violence are all the more horrific for how vivid they are. As is the shame that Justine feels after.

 

Raw is a juicy movie. It is rich for dissection, allowing viewers to pick at the scraps of its metaphor. A parable about sexual awakening and sibling rivalry in the vein of Ginger Snaps; a cautionary tale about overindulgence leading one to harm those close to them; a story about the difficulties young women face keeping up appearances in a world that watches and judges their every move; a document of aberrant eating practices such as binging and purging. It feels like a little bit of all these things. And it is all the more powerful for trusting the viewer to stumble into these readings after they’re done cringing.

Decisive Battle

Shin Godzilla is a massive Yes. Amazing fun, would watch again.

Who would have thought the funniest film I’ve seen this year was a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination wreaking havoc on an unprepared population centre, costing thousands of lives. And that too, a horror movie about a Lovecraftian abomination that pays the majority of its attention to the administrative realities of responding to the abomination rather than the abomination itself.

But yes, Shin Godzilla is a hilarious, biting satire that takes aim at Japanese bureaucracy’s inability to manage a crisis situation because it is too busy being cautious and trying to save face, a screed against a system that privileges seniority and status over competence and lateral thinking, a procedural about organising disaster response (that goes into a ridiculous amount of detail about the procedure involved), an honest to goodness social science fiction movie, a horror movie with particularly haunting imagery, and feature length otakubait. I’m going to be honest and say it ticked a lot of boxes for me, but it really does spend a lot of time with human characters who are largely uninteresting on an individual level. Most audiences aren’t going to like or want that in a Godzilla film, but I ate it up. 

Full disclosure here, my experience with the Godzilla canon starts and ends with Gojira, Godzilla vs Destoroyah, and the 2014 American Godzilla. Roland Emmerich’s monster was rechristened Zilla (for taking the God out of Godzilla) and featured as its own creature in Godzilla: Final Wars, and therefore doesn’t count anymore. So two out of three “proper” Godzilla movies I had seen prior focused a large amount of energy and screen time on the humans. As far as I am concerned, I was primed and ready for a film that had Godzilla as a thing in the background and forcing the humans’ hands. But it would be irresponsible to not acknowledge there is a larger number of films where Godzilla is a character in its own right, and if the response to ’14 Godzilla is any indication, these are the films that have resonated with audiences to a greater extent.

Caveat aside, let’s get into the meat of it.

The first thing to note is that Shin Godzilla serves as a soft reboot of the franchise. Godzilla makes his first ever appearance in this continuity off the coast of Tokyo, causing damage to infrastructure. The Japanese government spends a good while deliberating over what caused the damage, quite reasonably shooting down the idea that it could ever have been the responsibility of a giant, hitherto unknown creature. Where another disaster movie would play this scene straight, there is a hint of the comic in Shin Godzilla, and this is where we get the first clue that it’s got more on its mind than just blowing stuff up. 

When the Japanese government finally come to the realisation that a large, unidentified aquatic animal is indeed responsible for the damage, they spend a great deal of time deliberating about how to fashion a response, whether one is needed, if the creature can even come ashore, and whether or not mobilising the JSDF will shame them with the international community for retaliating against something that is not an aggressor nation. It is now when you start to realise things about what kind of movie Shin Godzilla is. It was around here that it became obvious that the previous hints of comedy were intentional, and that the movie is far more interested in the minutia of governmental bureaucracy in the face of an unprecedented situation. Much like an Edgar Wright film, the comedy comes from the art of film making itself, rather than solely from planting a camera in a room and having funny people improvise. It has impeccable comic timing in its editing, utilising smash cuts to either heighten any criticism a character is making of the current administration’s handling of the situation or to juxtapose unfounded suppositions with actual events, and allowing scenes to breathe in still silence to allow the audience to appreciate the absurdity of the situation the characters find themselves in. 

Even the visual composition of scenes plays into the film’s satirical leanings, with higher ranking members of government being seated at comfortable seats while the lower ranking members are shunted off into the corner, barely in view in most shots. And in one particular scene, a low ranking (and therefore not respected) biologist is brought in as a consultant by a low ranking official, she is seated up against the wall at the far corner of a room, away from all key players. The scene is blocked in a way that forces her to assert herself in order to be heard and considered, and is a great use of visual as metaphor. It is little things like this that I mean when I say the comedy comes from the act of film making rather than just having a locked down camera and improv.

Needless to say, things with Godzilla escalate beyond the Japanese government’s capacity to manage, the US steps in, nuking Tokyo is proposed by the UN and the clock is ticking to solve the Godzilla problem before Japan gets nuked for a third time.

It is evident from its focus on the political and bureaucratic process, that Shin Godzilla is an overtly political film. It takes great pains to follow decision making all the way down and back up the chain of command, showing just how many moving parts there are in actually orchestrating disaster relief, and how any one weak link could result in an entirely ineffective response. The film ends up being nostalgically nationalistic, drawing parallels to how Susanoo defeated Orochi, and positing that the Japan of the past was able to work as a united entity, public, corporate, and governmental bodies coming together to serve the best interests of the country as a whole. It even goes to great lengths to frequently mention how the response coordination is being aided in large part by civilian volunteers, in much the same way volunteers helped with the clean up after Fukushima. It is a very collectivist film in a way a Hollywood production absolutely would not be (with perhaps the exception of Pacific Rim). Even taking the recent American Godzilla, the story focused on Ford Brody’s journey as the US Army’s only bomb technician, or something of the sort. Western cinema seems satisfied with stories of individual achievement in the face of adversary, and Shin Godzilla is quite refreshing in its insistence on having the Japanese government, civilians, and corporations be the protagonist. This may leave the human characters wanting for depth, but this is very much the point of the film. A few characters do stand in as voice pieces for the film’s politics, but the large cast of human characters are effectively interchangeable. The film even does replace its characters from time to time, announcing new job titles in bold on screen text. But it is very much the collective body of the Japanese government that is the main character of this movie.

In some ways, Shin Godzilla is most similar to the absurd and blackly comical Korean creature feature, The Host. Those who have seen it will notice its similar distrust of the United States Government and its occupation and control over the nation. Shin Godzilla is ultimately a more optimistic film, with even the United States offering support when Japan moves to initiate its own end game to stop the Godzilla menace in a possible nod to the United States military’s Operation Tomodachi. That said, the contempt for the US strong arming them into a nuclear ultimatum is palpable, as is the frustration with their pascifist constitution, which reflects the relatively current political climate and interest in reintroducing a Military in Japan.

You may have gathered by now that Shin Godzilla is light on Kaiju action. But when the film shifts focus to Godzilla, it is not afraid to get serious, and even grotesque. Scenes with Big G are appropriately massive and creatively lensed. Director Hideaki Anno (most famously of cult mechs anime Neon Genesis Evangelion) makes effective use of perspective and negative space to communicate Godzilla’s massive size and alien appearance against the Tokyo skyline. Action sequences are all wonderful, whether they be scenes of the JSDF ineffectually firing upon Godzilla, with hundreds upon thousands of tracers converging on a single point, or a particularly awe inspiring night time scene where Godzilla lets its true power be known for the first time. They are all coherently staged and direct the audience’s attention to the most important elements of each shot. It is all the more spectacular to have an uninterrupted, clear view of the carnage than an artificially kinetic, quickly cut sequence. Some of Anno’s cinematic fingerprints make the jump as well. He subtitles everything of significance on screen, including tanks and helicopters. Military deployment scenes focus on synchronised movements, as if it is all a choreographed dance. The film uses montage to highlight the destruction left in Godzilla’s wake. These moments serve as sobering reminders of the human and economic cost of bureaucratic inefficiency, and is once again not something you are likely to see in a Western movie. Sure you’d have your money shots of buildings being toppled, or cut in half by atomic breath as the case may be, but no sombre reminder of what was lost once the monster has moved on to another district.

I think what pleased me most about Shin Godzilla is its insistence on tackling heady subject matter by using the absurd as a rhetorical device. In this way it is similar to the 1954 film. But where Gojira is a haunting, sombre horror movie, Shin Godzilla runs head first into comedy. 

Now, while I can say Shin Godzilla is indeed an interesting, often hilarious, often haunting movie, I am not sure how much of my appreciation came from my familiarity with the tropes Anno used with Evangelion, vague understanding/awareness of the disastrous handling of Fukushima, Operation Tomodachi, and in internet parlance, being a weeb. I don’t know how much of the satire and the use of the Japanese government as the central character of the film would work without at least a passing understanding of Fukushima. I know some of the specific cultural references will pass most audiences over (e.g. Nico Nico Douga scrolling comment text, Susanoo tricking Orochi into drinking sake before their battle – in the subtitles, Orochi is referred to as a hydra), and knowledge of Japan’s JSDF being relegated to a self defence role after WWII. What power will the film have then without this baggage the audience brings in?

Ultimately, given how Kaiju light Shin Godzilla is, will people receive it like the 2014 American Godzilla?

Would now be a good time to mention I liked that one too?

SPOILER TIME:

In keeping with the film’s use of metaphor and parallelism, Godzilla is identified as a cluster of extremophiles, rather than a singular organism. Godzilla is shown metamorphosising into various forms that are better adapted to the situation at hand. His initially shown form can barely function on land, so he transforms. He is under threat, so he transforms again, into a larger, final form.
The point here is this is a collection of smaller entities coming together as a whole organisation, and adapting quickly and effectively to the difficulties that they are presented with, in sharp contrast to the bumbling of the Japanese Government. 
This film is taking Godzilla as metaphor as far as Gojira, and it is glorious.

Don’t Breathe

As horror very much yes. As thriller, no. (Warning regarding sexual violence if you do choose to watch it).

We are in Detroit. A trio of teens break into houses and steal just under $10,000 for various ends? You see, one of these teens has a father who works for a home security company, giving him access to all the keys and gadgets required to pull off a break in. Their fence is playing hard ball and their cut is shrinking with each take. But then they catch wind of the perfect catch, a blind man who lives alone in a deserted neighbourhood. Said blind man came into money after a massive settlement when a rich girl ran over and killed his daughter.
How hard can it be to break into and rob the house of an old blind man?
Don’t Breathe is a big step up technically from the Evil Dead Remake.
It is, in fact technically proficient to surprising degree. It is quite an effective little shocker. On a technical level.
I cannot say that enough.
Everything from the sound design to the grotesque green and yellow colour palette to the camera work all combines to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is incredibly confident. Chekhov’s guns are made evident, the geography of the house is laid out, and a red herring or two is planted all within the first few minutes of the break in. The formal elements all work towards ramping up tension. There is one sequence in particular taking place in a dark basement that is incredibly inventive, and all the more tense for it.
Gosh, even the setting of a decrepit Detroit adds a further layer of desperation to the film.
Okay, okay, point made. On an aesthetic level, Don’t Breathe is hitting out of the park. But what about the characters? They are for the most part your typical morally bankrupt teen slasher characters. Money, the muscle behind our delinquent trio is most likely named after his sole character motivation. I honestly cannot remember the names of the other two characters (though given this is a known deficit of mine, I am not sure I can blame the movie for this). There is the young lady who lives with an abusive mother and who wants to move to California with her younger sister. Then there’s the third dude, whose motivation is “girl, ???, profit,” and his sole character trait is that he spouts Hollywood legal information about how to get away breaking and entering without it being a felony. 
And the old man is some kind of blind super man, capable of incredible displays of sensory perception, beyond what you could probably expect of a war veteran who took shrapnel to the face. His character motivation starts off simple and easy to sympathise with, to get the kids out of his house so he can be at peace with his attack dog. His methods, however are brutal and without sympathy.
Here’s where Don’t Breathe gets interesting in a similar way to You’re Next gets, except without the black comedy inherent in the situation. This is a home invasion thriller where the home invaders are the ones in danger. 
But here is also where things get tricky on a genre level. In You’re Next, you are rooting for the home owners to prevail against the invaders. In Don’t Breathe, you’re rooting for the home owner to prevail against the invaders, who just so happen to be our main characters, the ones we should be rooting for. And this is where Don’t Breathe starts breaking down, when taken as something more than an example of formal discipline.
There are certain audience expectations when it comes to horror movies. Let me explain:
You wouldn’t normally be hoping for an armed veteran to murder a group of teenagers who broke into his house. It is morally questionable at best, but in real life, extra-judicial assassination is too extreme a punishment for the crime. HOWEVER in a horror movie, all bets are off. The genre works on a rather conservative moral compass, where any transgression is punished severely. So in the realm of the movie, the old man had the teens dead to rights. The audience expects and wants the teens’ transgressions to be punished.
But the movie also wants to play like a thriller with a mild socio-economic flavour to it, desperately wanting us to side with the teens and their desire to make a better life for themselves away from the corrupting influence of abusive adults. This is why you spend the first act paying lip service to their struggles (well at least the girl’s struggles). It’s pulls out all the stops to this end almost to the point of self sabotage. After its first act, it plays like a straight home invasion horror/thriller, sensational in its staging, but not crass in its content…
Until the third act. Until it flies off the rails into exploitation in a twist tailor made to make us sympathise harder than ever before with the teens. There are hints at it earlier on in the film, but the actual depths of crassness the full reveal sinks to is a bit too little too late for the rather slick, relatively non-grubby genre flick that came before. It does add a wrinkle of bittersweetness to the end, but it is something the movie could have done without.
And in all seriousness, it is something that could very well be triggering to survivors of sexual assault.
You have been warned.
But boy, from a technical perspective, it cements Fede Alvarez as a young genre director to look out for. Don’t Breathe is an exceptional aesthetic object in a time when such things are becoming increasingly rare in mainstream horror. Worth considering a watch on that level alone.

The end of the world all over again

No.

Independence Day: Resurgence is what is wrong with contemporary blockbuster cinema. At least western blockbuster cinema.
We pick up 20 years after the end of Independence Day. The aliens have been thwarted, earth has adapted their technology into ours, the world’s nations have come together in much the same way Ozymandias hoped the giant space alien squid would do at the end of Watchmen, with a combined world wide Earth-Space Defense Force. I suppose in that way the pandering to China feels more organic than in something like Transformers 4.
Jeff Goldblum is now an adviser to the earth-space defense force, one they don’t ever listen to, but I guess the title counts for something. There are human outposts throughout the solar system, and it’s at the lunar outpost that we blow a hole through a non-hostile alien ship and leave ourselves unprepared for the alien onslaught to come.
Independence Day: Resurgence has a wonderful cast: Jeff Goldblum, Charlotte Gainsbourg, William Fichtner. It then elects to do nothing with them. It has a breathtaking sequence that eclipses anything the original manages, then becomes much much smaller. It is goofy and amiable, not taking itself too seriously, then invests much energy in Poe faced mythology and franchise building. Independence Day: Resurgence is not so much the disaster film with sci-fi trappings of the original as is a cynical game of moving pieces into place for sequels to come.
Aside from that there are weird technical issues you would not expect in a tent pole feature. Some cuts result in poor communication of the flow of time, ending up temporally confused and confusing. Actors fail to meet eye lines. CG effects do not feel like they belong in the world, like they are weightless and without substance (a complaint that also applies to the transformers films).
But the biggest sin… Other than Jeff Goldblum, there is nothing that Independence Day: Resurgence does that other big CG laden movies cannot provide. What made Independence Day novel in its time was its sense of scale. It was more massive than its contemporaries. Now a days, a big, loud, flashy blockbuster is old hat. Anyone with the budget can and will do that. So what does Independence Day: Resurgence offer? Nostalgia? Perhaps. But then the movie looks and feels so much different due to the change in visual design. The incorporation of alien technology in our technology and building design makes it feel more like a generic futuristic film than a film that takes place in the same universe.
Independence Day: Resurgence may be less insufferable than a Transformers, but it is a beast with no identity of its own. It is content to do everything that other films are doing without offering anything unique. It is just another big, loud, waste of time that is too busy thinking of the future to focus on the present.
ID4 was a big film. ID: R is the shadow it cast.