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.

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.

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.