Editorial – “Shin Godzilla” and the Beginning of a New Age

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It has come to my attention that, while the overwhelming majority thought “Shin Godzilla” was a solid film that blended the terrors of giant monsters with the triumph of overcoming them, while also paying loving tribute to the films that came before it, there are some who were thrown off by the film in many ways. Some hated the cast of thousands that had no development and no reason to care for their struggle against Godzilla, while others thought it was filled with too much political discussions and not enough monster action.

But the most common complaint I’ve heard is that “Shin Godzilla” does away with the traditional style of daikaiju filmmaking, in other words suitmation. In this film, Godzilla is not some guy in a rubber suit, like he was in the previous 28 Godzilla movies, and is instead mostly a computer generated image. In fact, almost all the effects in this film were generated by computers.

Did you know that almost every tank used in the first military confrontation with Godzilla was a CGI creation? I didn’t know that until I watched a behind-the-scene clip on YouTube that showed how some of the effects were created, and it went into detail on how the tanks and helicopters were made.

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Some people hate that a film style drenched in tradition and style would forgo all of that and use a modern creation. A style that goes back to the 1950s and was used all the way through the mid-2000s, and it is missing from the latest entry in the Godzilla series.

And while I see where these people are coming from and the importance of sticking to tradition, I don’t think “Shin Godzilla” would have been nearly as effective if this Godzilla was a guy in a rubber suit. If anything, “Shin Godzilla” showed the potential of CGI in Japanese monster movies and how you can do things that were never possible before.

Let me ask you a question – Before “Shin Godzilla,” what was the most recent big daikaiju movie that came out? In Japan, Godzilla hadn’t been seen since 2004 in a film that nearly killed the franchise, “Godzilla: Final Wars,” Gamera has been missing since 2006 with “Gamera: The Brave,” and Ultraman has been mostly limited to television. I bring this up because it shows that daikaiju movies died out around the mid-2000s.

There are plenty of explanations for this, including an overabundance of monster movies at the time, a lack of original stories and far too many retreads, but it was clear that around 2004, box office numbers were declining with daikaiju films and reviews were not great either. Part of this could have been that the CGI seen in other big budget films, like “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong,” were blowing away anything Japanese studios could make and they didn’t have the money to compete with the American studios were creating.

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With so many films using CGI, we became accustom to that, and got use to filmmakers using that imagery to create things that we could have never seen otherwise. Because of that, audience didn’t want to see guys in rubber suits anymore.

Honestly, I don’t blame the filmmakers of “Shin Godzilla” for using mostly CGI to create Godzilla. Toho had been using small amounts of CG in the Godzilla films since “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah,” as well as every movie in the 2000s. Sometimes it is easier to get Godzilla’s size and scale across when you’re not bound by a guy in a rubber monster suit.

If you have the technology to do so, why not use it? If you want to get people interested in daikaiju movies again, you’ve got to find new ways to captivate them.

What I found the most impressive with “Shin Godzilla”‘s CGI is how well it complimented the cinematography. There were dozens of shots in this film where you see large-scale camera movement or shots with miles of city-wide destruction. There’s one shot entirely out of the side of a car, as it starts pretty far away from Godzilla, but drives closer to him, until its right next to his massive leg and caught in his trail of destruction. Or another shot where all you can only see Godzilla up to his knees, but the camera focuses on the cars and chunks of building that his feet are kicking up as he moves across the landscape.

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These shots would have been impossible to achieve if Godzilla was a suit.

I cannot recall much dynamic camera movement in previous Godzilla films. There were a few times where the camera would pan left or right a bit, but the camera was mostly static, especially in the early Godzilla movies. I understand why – they can’t move the camera too much because the set isn’t that big. But with “Shin Godzilla,” all of Toyko is this movies’ set.

I was blown away when I got to see Godzilla from so far away and then up-close and personal in the same shot, especially since Godzilla hardly moved in that shot. The camera is so dynamic in “Shin Godzilla” that you could have told an entire story with just the monster clips, and it would have worked out spectacularly. It was breathtaking to see a monster film where the camera movement had no limits.

On top of that, the filmmakers of “Shin Godzilla” set out to give us a Godzilla that benefited from CGI. This Godzilla has tiny skeleton-like hands that couldn’t have worked for a suit actor’s arms, and a tail that moves more than the rest of the body. He has an insanely long neck, leading to a head that has teeth everywhere, an absurdly large mouth and smallest eyes you can imagine. Not to mention, this is a constantly mutating creƤture.

Is this Godzilla possible through suitmation? Sure, anything is possible, in fact a few shots in “Shin Godzilla” where they used a large puppet. They even made a full-body suit for the newest Godzilla. But they mostly stuck with CGI, to keep this Godzilla’s bodily exaggerations going.

I don’t think a little Godzilla mutating into a bigger Godzilla in the middle of a bustling city would look convincing if done using suitmation.

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Which brings us to my biggest point – There are so many things you can do with CGI that would be ridiculous otherwise. I don’t doubt the power of suitmation and how clever it can be, fifty years of daikaiju filmmaking prove that, but “Shin Godzilla” proves that using CGI can be as clever. It can be used to give us impossible creatures in realistic settings, and to be combined with cinematography to give us something we’ve never seen before.

Computer generated imagery has come a long way since its conception. While there were dark days of CG, where it was everywhere and everyone thought they were an expert on it leading us to some crappy action/adventure and fantasy movies, we are now at the point where we can have entirely CG characters interact with real actors and be just as emotionally invested in them as any other character.

Any film that uses CG to make a talking racoon and a tree who are best friends, and make them the most interesting characters in the film is using CGI to its greatest potential.

Because computer generated imagery isn’t just a cheap way out of actually creating something. It is a filmmaking tool, just like a camera, lighting and an editing device. It can be used well or poorly, depending on the filmmaker. If you use it badly, it’ll stick out the like a sore thumb and break the illusion of cinema. But if used properly, then you expand your landscape and allows you to show the audience more before.

There’s no denying the appeal of the classic Godzilla movies, especially for someone like me, seeing those rubber suits and hand-crafted sets, where you can see all the hard work in the construction of the shot alone. The charm of those films may not be present in “Shin Godzilla,” but it is replaced by a new charm. One that speaks to the digital age and takes full advantage of using mostly CGI, through cinematography, monster design and atmosphere.

So, with the success of “Shin Godzilla” and its use of CGI, what does all this mean for the future of daikaiju filmmaking? I think that filmmakers are going to become far more clever and find new ways to blend computer imagery with suitmation. Just because one film found success in a new way doesn’t mean they’ll abandon the old ways. I do think this means we’ve entered a new era for daikaijus, one of exploration and possibly experimenting with combining styles. And with Toho planning on more Godzilla movies in the future, I am certainly looking forward to what is in store for us.

 

Movie Review – “Diabolique” (1955)

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What do you do when two rather unlikable yet relatable characters want to kill an irredeemable despicable character? You get a twist thriller where everyone gets what is coming to them.

“Diabolique” is a French black-and-white thriller that has been described “Hitchcock-ian” in the best possible way. And while I see the similarities between this and some of Hitchcock’s murder mysteries like “Rope” and “Rear Window,” “Diabolique” adds a level of hatred and pity that is absent from most of the Master of Suspense’s thrillers, something that I’ve only found in French filmmaking.

In a normal Hitchcock film, the main characters are there to be the lenses for the audience. They have phobias and wit certainly, but they also don’t try to make the audience hate them (unless you’re “Vertigo” or “Psycho,” in which case that all goes out the window). But with “Diabolique,” I couldn’t completely relate to those two women, Christina and Nicole, who are both teachers at an all-boys boarding school. Christina is married to the headmaster of the school, Michel, while Nicole is Michel’s mistress, and both have come to realize that Michel is a terrible person and they would both be better off if he was gone. So the two begin to formulate a plan to murder Michel and make his death look like an accident.

Christina continually has second thoughts about the murder. She is a devoted catholic and was raised by the church her entire life, but Michel is an abusive spouse who is only after Christina’s money. Because of her upbringing, she can’t get a divorce without shaming herself for the rest of her life. Nicole, being cold-hearted but understanding of Christina’s suffering, convinces her that murder is the only solution.

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There is this strange feeling I get with both Christina and Nicole throughout “Diabolique,” where I see them as both the heroes and the villains. Technically, they’re murdering an innocent man, even though most would say the world would be better off without him. Their reasons for committing such terrible actions make sense and are logically right, yet they are still morally wrong. Nicole and Christina exist in a grey area where you can sympathize with their struggles, yet feel sick that they’d end another life for their own needs.

“Diabolique”‘s tension and mystery gets cranked up to eleven during the second half of the film, when the body mysteriously disappears. The murder they had so perfectly planned goes awry when they feel something supernatural happens. Things get even more complicated when students keep claiming they’ve seen Michel around the school. The terrible deeds of Nicole and Christina will not stop haunting them, which makes that grey area so rewarding as the film progresses.

So while there is a Hitchcock influence in “Diabolique,” the moral ambiguity that can only be found in French cinema elevates this film even further. It paints a portrait of three darkened lives trying their best to control everyone around them, and failing miserably at it. This is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time, with memorable twists, pitch-perfect atmosphere and satisfying all the tension it was building up to.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The House of Wax” (1953)

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If you didn’t like creepy wax replicas before, you’ll be horrified after watching this movie!

“House of Wax” tells the tale of Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price), a man devoted to recreating famous people through wax sculptures, such as Joan of Arc, John Wilkes Booth and Marie Antoinette. Jarrod is so obsessed with this that he even talks to his sculptures, and he claims they talk back to him. He has a museum where everyone can see his sculptures, but business has been slow lately and his business partner demands he do something to bring in a bigger crowd, something that would shock the audience. But Jarrod believes in the natural beauty of his sculptures and he doesn’t need to use murder or torture to bring in a crowd.

But the business partner brings up the point that each of Jarrod’s wax dummies are insured and that if they burned down the museum the two of them would be rich. Jarrod is against the idea, insisting that these people are his family and brawl ensues. Jarrod is knocked out and the building is consumed with fire. The waxed people begin to melt, their clothes and hair going up in flames and their eyes falling out of their head, and Jarrod is unable to make it out of the burning building.

However, months later, a new wax museum opens up, that showcases terrible murders and grotesque, savage imagery, run by a wheelchair-bound Professor Jarrod, unable to sculpt due to his burned hands.

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This was one of the first films to showcase 3-D, with advertisements all over the place claiming that this would revolutionize the way we watched cinema. As such, there are several shots in throughout the film that pander to the third-dimension, such as a street entertainer who uses two paddle balls that he thrusts at the screen.

Outside of those who are afraid of wax statutes and their eyes that always follow you around, “House of Wax” boasts a creepy Vincent Price performance that showcases multiple types of strange. From the first Professor Jarrod, who thinks of his creations as his family and talks to them like they’ll answer back, to the revived Professor Jarrod, obsessed with the macabre and treating everyone else like wax dummies, even the living. If anything else, watch this film for Vincent Price’s performance.

Overall, “House Of Wax” is a gorgeous horror film, with vibrant colors and an intriguing horror mystery. While most horror films at the time were still in black-and-white, this one takes full advantage of color cinematography. If you’re intrigued by how lifelike Jarrod’s sculptures can get, especially when those eyes follow you where ever you go, check this one out.

Final Grade: A-

Movie Review – “The Uninvited” (1944)

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Here we have another one of those movies that began as a romantic novel that take a supernatural turn, like “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” “The Uninvited” is about a brother and sister that buy an old rundown house in England, which turns out to be haunted and the only way to free the ghost is to know what is troubling her.

Like with “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” I can see the appeal of this movie. It has romance, comedy, fantasy, horror all rolled into one and given some charming actors and actresses, like Ray Milland. To be honest, Milland’s performance the only part I liked, since he always had a happy-go-lucky attitude about the whole thing. He sells everything he owns in London to by this house, so he can’t leave even after finding out the place is haunted. He always has a brilliant smile on his face, not even a ghost can take that away from him.

But clearly, I am not the target demographic for “The Uninvited.” This is aimed for young women who don’t mind being scared now and then, but also like a bit of romance. It is a by-the-numbers fantasy romance, with some nice atmosphere and fitting music, but it does not have much else going for it.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “The Wolf Man” (1941)

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For being a movie led in the same camp as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” Universal’s “The Wolf Man” sure doesn’t feel like a horror film. If anything, this comes across as a psychological mystery, where you’re unsure if there really is a monster or if it is all in the head of our protagonist, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.).

The doubt about Larry’s actions is the driving force behind “The Wolf Man.” The titular werewolf only gets about two minutes of screen time, and we never see Larry fully turn into a wolf (the most we get are his legs getting extremely hairy), so the film chooses to cast everything in mystery. Larry wakes up remembering nothing, but there are dead villagers with bite marks. Local doctors and psychologists explain that a man could give into his animal-istic tendencies, especially if he were hypnotized. Perhaps by the passing gangs of gypsies, who immediately run for the hills when they hear a werewolf is nearby.

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Larry is an odd character, since he starts out looking through his telescope to find a local girl running an antique shop and runs off to hit on her. He refuses to give up on this girl, even after she turns him down multiple times. Larry shows up after the store closes and takes the girl on a date she didn’t agree to. Even after he learns this girl is engaged, that doesn’t stop him from hitting on her. Larry starts out as such a sleaze-ball and I couldn’t wait for the werewolf to show up.

After he is bitten by a wolf and loses control of his own actions, possibly by the gypsy woman controlling him or by turning into a werewolf, he becomes a bit more sympathetic, since he just wants to understand what’s going on and how to put a stop to all this. Lon Chaney Jr. is wonderful for that part of the role, with his big watery eyes and permanent sad face. You can’t help but feel sorry for this man. Either that or give him a bone and pat on the head.

This is also the film that established all the classic tropes for werewolf movies. How the curse is spread, the full moon being what causes the transformation, and silver being the key to stopping a werewolf.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Wolf Man,” if only for knowing where all these stories of werewolves came from. It was nice to see the introduction to this type of story being played as a mystery and not straight horror, especially since that sets it apart from the other Universal monster flicks.

Final Grade: C+

Movie Review – “The Accountant” (2016)

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There was a story a while back, when “Guardians of the Galaxy” was still in theaters, where this guy took his autistic brother to the movie. His brother didn’t normally go out to the theater, but he immediately established a connection to Drax the Destroyer because of how the alien reacted to metaphors and expressions, with the one that stuck out being if something were to go over his head, Drax’s reaction was “Nothing goes over my head, my reflexes are too fast.”

The brother wrote a touching piece towards director James Gunn, actor Dave Bautista and the entire cast and crew of “Guardians of the Galaxy” for creating an action hero that his brother, an in effective everyone with autism, could relate to. Because those with autism have an immensely difficult time relating to other people, as well as film characters. Visual queues and non-verbal expressions are lost on most. So to find a character who is going through the same struggles they are can mean a great deal.

This is why I enjoyed parts of “The Accountant,” a film that boasts a great deal of action sequences featuring a character with autism, in particular Asperger’s Syndrome. Normally, the main character be as plain as possible, so that everyone in the audience can relate to our hero. Give him some basic struggles, maybe a quirky personality and you’re set. But in this film, we get a hero who has a mental illness that can’t be overcome with pills or therapy, and is detached from the world around him even though he wants to be apart of it.

Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic genius, raised by a brutal military-oriented father who trained him and his brother to be feared and could beat up anyone who picked on him. As Christian grew up, he took a job as a CPA accountant, but has been secretly running the books for the deadliest organizations in the world. His latest job is a robotics company in the Chicago-area, and his able to unearth some old files that suggest the company is missing millions of dollars, which gets the attention of some hired mercenaries, led by the mysterious Brax (Joe Bernthal).

Meanwhile, the leader of the Treasury Department, Ray King (J.K. Simmons), is about to retire, but wants to use his last few months to track down this mysterious accountant and find out who he is and how he was able to get away with handling the money for the most dangerous people in the world.

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Looking back on it, there is nothing spectacular about the story or the action of “The Accountant.” The plot follows an expected path, leading to a competent action sequence, which sets up a mystery about who is stealing the robotics company’s money, culminating in a poorly-shot action sequence in a dark house where you’re not exactly sure what’s going on. The plot is, at best, generic for modern-day thrillers, and at worst is tedious and predictable. Outside of the climax, which is handled badly, the cinematography is fine, as it meticulously shows the routine of Christian’s life and what happens to him when he deviates from that. These aspects of the film were adequately handled and performed.

The entire subplot with J.K. Simmons’ character ultimately goes no where and adds little to the story. There is a touching flashback where Ray King meets the accountant at gunpoint, done mostly in one long take and showcases the acting talent of Simmons, but that’s about all his story adds to “The Accountant.” The two never meet again, and King’s journey of finding this unknown man has no resolution.

Yet, despite all this, I will remember “The Accountant” for a long time, due to how well the film handled the sensitivity of being autistic. There have been films that danced around a character having autism and choosing not to attention to it. There have also been movies that show characters having symptoms of autism, deduced by the audience, but never directly referenced in the movie. “The Accountant” proudly proclaims that its main character is autistic, has difficulty socializing but has increased mental capabilities, doesn’t like being touched or having his senses overloaded, and that there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Christian puts himself in several awkward situations throughout the film, with both his clients and co-workers. He will outright say he hates something about a person’s outfit, usually because the other person asked Christian if he liked the outfit and he was only answering honestly, but he is willing to recognize when he might have upset someone and attempts to make the situation better. These people don’t treat Christian any differently, as they are mostly trying to understand him and appreciate the work he is doing for them.

There is one scene about halfway through the film, where Christian explains what is happening to his colleague, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), and he tells her about his Asperger’s Syndrome, how easy it is to get into a routine and how difficult it is to be broken from that routine and the inability to read people’s emotions and connect with them. His last line is what will stick with me – “I have a very difficult time socializing with other people, even though I really want to.”

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As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, that line hit me hard. This isn’t a tortured soul looking to redeem himself or someone out for revenge. This is a man who wants to not be seen for his mental problems, and instead be looked at as a normal person who could be accepted, despite his illness, and be loved like everyone else. All he wants is friends and lasting connections, something very hard to come by for him, even though he tries so hard to make it work.

If anything else, “The Accountant” is for those who have to deal with this on a daily basis. It brings Autism to the front for everyone to see, and shows that they are all wonderful people waiting to be discovered. They may often be blunt or rash, but they are kind and caring individuals that deserve love just as much as anyone else.

Final Grade: B-

Movie Review – “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

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There’s one scene that really stuck with me after watching “Only Angels have Wings.” It is near the beginning of the movie, after we have been introduced to our leading lady, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), arriving the small South American port of Barranca, a village that sits quietly between the sea and the Andes Mountains. Bonnie has a meal with two pilots, working out of a small agency that flies airmail through the dangerous mountains in even worse flying conditions. Barranca is almost always surrounded by either dense fog, blinding rain or below-freezing temperatures.

This agency is led by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), who immediately orders one of these two pilots to go up for a delivery in the middle of the night, even after a thick fog has rolled in. This pilot promises to return in a few hours to have a nice steak dinner with Bonnie. The pilot goes up and has no immediate problems, but the weather gets worse as his flight continues. Carter orders him to turn around and make it back to base, but the fog is so thick now the pilot can’t see anything out his window. Even after turning on their brightest lights at headquarters, he can’t see anything.

So Carter and his best friend, Kid (Thomas Mitchell) head outside and begin listening for the hum of the planes’ engine. They hook up the radios outside and use their hearing to tell the pilot how close he is to base. During this time, Carter tells the local bar to stop playing music and shut off all lights, being able to hear the engine to the south and telling him to head north.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  Directed by Howard Hawks Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr., Cary Grant

The pilot is far too high on his first run at the base, but he buzzes over the radio building on his second try. This gives the pilot of glimmer of hope, since he got so low he was able to spot the beacon of light and knows where it is. Carter reminds him that he has enough gas in the plane for three more hours of sustained flight and he should wait until the fog clears to make another attempt. But he is convinced that a clean landing is possible, in a hurry to get to his steak dinner with Bonnie.

Against the orders of Carter and Kid, the pilot makes one last attempt. Upon seeing the plane coming in, Carter yells for him to pull up, but it’s too late – the plane rams right into a tall tree, losing one wing immediately and the plane tumbles to the ground in the most violent way.

The reason this scene is so memorable to be is three things. One, it was done entirely from the perspective of Carter and the people on the ground. We never cut up to the plane until it slams into the tree, so we are put in the same situation as the ground crew, having to use only our hearing to save this man’s life. Two is how tense and suspenseful this scene was. Even though we hardly knew anything about this man, we know that every time he goes up in that plane could be his last. Even the most skilled pilots would find this situation impossible, so we’re immediately invested in this quiet scene and whether this man lives. The final reason is how it builds the dangerous world these pilots live in. Rather than relying on your sight to land a plane, in this area it requires your hearing and instincts. Take into account this takes place in the late 1930s and the types of planes they had back then, and you’ve got a flying situation that will never end well for anyone.

What a great way to open up a movie about pilots who deliver airmail in a dangerous South American village.

It is unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t match this opening. The following scenes of the fellow pilots and Bonnie reacting to the crash are great, as well as the first conversation between Carter and Bonnie, but after that the rest of the film is just a bunch of disjointed flying sequences. It is easy to lose track of why they’re flying after the halfway point, which is a little disheartening considering the solid opening.

Final Grade: B-