Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Godzilla: Minus One

Horror as a genre originated from real fear—taking things we are afraid of in our real lives and turning them into something fantastic and unreal. I think all my favorite horror movies have that element to them. Some are like Crimson Peak; "The ghosts are a metaphor for the past," the characters say. And in the movie that's really all they are. Some are like 28 Days Later; people grappling with loneliness and isolation in a world where everyone you meet is either a zombie, or could turn into one at any moment. 

Metaphorical monster movies in particular stand out to me. Even if (or perhaps especially if) the metaphor is obvious or spelled out as in Jurassic Park or The Babadook, there's something about the combination of the unignorable presence of a literal monster wreaking havoc and more subtle things they represent (such as pushing the limits of science, or simple depression) that brings the fear to life. And Godzilla—the original Godzilla—is a classic example of that. A radioactive monster terrorizes Japan.

I've always understood the metaphor in my head. This movie made me understand it in my heart.

As the Godzilla character became Americanized, the metaphor shifted. It became a tool used to preach. A warning against war or the wielding of nuclear weapons perhaps, but not about the fear, and the powerlessness of being at the mercy of those things. Godzilla himself even turned into a benevolent being that represents peace, somehow. And lately, it's been nothing but a way to use CGI artists to numb audience minds for money. Godzilla go rawr, people buy ticket. 

And that, most of all, is why I love Godzilla: Minus One. It's a return to metaphorical form. And it's done gloriously. It made me feel and understand on a palpable, gut-wrenching level, the fear that Godzilla represents. And it's not even marketed as a horror movie! It's not very scary, nor dark in tone (or in lighting). It's just an action/adventure monster movie, with drama. And characters. And writing. And I mean real, honest-to-goodness, there's-cohesion-and-a-story-here kind of writing, where everything fits together and serves to enhance and balance the next element, all surrounded by artistry and understanding of the purpose and value of stories as a whole... and I... I've missed this so SO much over the past few years. 

A cohesive story is great—but can still be clinical. This one possesses that spark of passion that brings a well-conceived story to life. Really, it's more than a spark. 

Minus One follows Koichi, a failed kamikaze pilot who goes home after the war in shame to a bombed out house and no family left alive. Survivor's guilt plagues him, as do memories of a dinosaur-like creature who appeared out of the sea and killed everyone on an island outpost where he was hiding. He cannot allow himself to truly live, but neither can he turn away from life completely. He stumbles into caring for a girl named Noriko, and the orphaned baby she's become a surrogate mother for. Together they build a life and scrape by until they've found their feet. He gets a job removing sea mines from the bay. The city and the people begin to heal. But then the monster returns. And with it, the dread and the shame.

Even though the topic is depressing and the people in the story are beat down, the movie's tonal feel is incredibly broad. One of my favorite things about Japanese entertainment. The sweet/pleasantly goofy humor sparked laughs, then it seamlessly falls into the quiet character moments, or to energetic scenes, anger and joy in turn. There is a prevailing sense of hope and perseverance present, and when the monster thrills come, they do not disappoint. The awesome, boyish, "that so cool!" element is as necessary as the underlying seriousness. And neither undercuts the other. Some of the monster moments were outright stunning. I never thought I could take Godzilla seriously enough to get a jolt of fear seeing him chase down a ship. Or the dread—a true sinking sensation—as his atomic breath builds through his spine.

Those monsterverse movies, with their oodles and oodles of cash, never came close to hitting like this.

There were one or two times when I reflexively gasped, and I spent several minutes in debate with myself over who would survive and trying to figure out if a happy ending was earned, or would it be tragic, or bittersweet. I fell in love with Koichi almost instantly, understanding and sympathizing with him, hoping he'll find a way to beat both the monster and the metaphor. And all the side characters as well. They were all their own people, their personalities and arcs mattering every bit as much as their functional purpose within the plot. It feels so strange that an action flick about an atomic sea-dino could throw me so effectively and cleanly through a gauntlet of emotional ups and downs, but that is, after all, what stories are meant for—even if we've forgotten.

Monster movies at their best aren't monster movies. If the creature is a metaphor, or some fantastic extreme fictionalization of a real fear, then if it's done right, the monster can reveal a human heart even more clearly than a regular-sized movie that's only about the people. Done right, monster movies are more human than human movies. And Minus One knows that. It earns everything it reaches for (and it reaches far!) because it reaches for understanding and connection, using monster mayhem and spectacle as a means to achieve that end. There's plenty to be said for the spectacle this movie delivers, but the true beauty here—like a metaphor—isn't in what we can literally see, but in what that sight prompts us to feel and understand.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sound of Freedom

It's always complicated when a work's value expected to be judged on more standards than entertainment and artistry. This movie is activism; made to shine a harsh light on the realities of child sex trafficking. I think that's a good goal, but good motivation doesn't ensure quality of the product, and I want to judge movies on artistic scales, not moral ones.

So I'm conflicted. Some was really good. And some felt more like a sermon than art.

And with that reservation, I went into this movie already closed off to it. Whether that's fair or not, that's the lens through which I write this. Aware that the goal was raised awareness and not entertainment, I found the opening scenes exploitative and uncomfortable in ways that made me angry at the movie itself, for showing young kids in sexualized situations. That's what the movie wanted; to make me angry, not to entertain. But the story, viewed outside of the movie's framing of it, isn't just about horrors and evil in the world, but about hope, and justice, and the good that fights that evil. 

I'm not usually one for true stories but this ticks the right boxes to work for me. It features a regular guy, just doing his job to the best of his ability—but far beyond what's expected of him, or what others in his position would have done. The plot is self-contained enough that it has a clear point where the goal is accomplished, and all the right places for the ups and downs, tension and release that storytelling is—but the feeling the movie evokes conflicts with all that. It shows but doesn't embody what's on paper. It effectively made me feel sick. It effectively built tension. But then when the goal was accomplished, there was no emotional effectiveness. No release. No relief. Did they mean for those moments to carry catharsis? Or was the lack an intentional choice? 

I enjoyed seeing Jim Caviezel again. I wish they'd found a more creative way of showing Tim's deeper emotions than having him monologue while misty-eyed, though.

Filmmaking 101 says that your opening shot and your closing shot are mirrors of one another. Viewing them side by side, you should be able to see what changed over the course of the story. So, Sound of Freedom opens with the little girl who is will be kidnapped, sitting on her bed, alone in a dim room, playing a drum. And in the ending, after she's rescued, she's in the same room, on the same bed, with the same lighting, playing the same drum. Except... what? There is only one change. And if you're paying attention maybe you're thinking, "she's not alone in the final shot. She's saved and restored to her family, so they're there, gathered around her and they're all happy and free." Nice idea. But no. She's alone at the end, too. The only change is that the camera pans inward at the opening, and outward at the end. And for some reason I can't move past that.

There's a lot of things I could spend time here going over. Things like writing, and performances, and production quality—but all that's sticking with me is this irresolvable question. Why? Why didn't they show her with her family at the end? Why did they make the ending just as bleak as the beginning if the story was supposed to be uplifting? And the only thing I can think of is that they thought if they made the conclusion too happy—if they released their audience and gave them their reward of catharsis—that wouldn't spark as much real-world change as they wanted, because the audience would have a sense of resolution as they left the theater. So they didn't. 

Even the tender moments have this underlying ominous dread. It's just so relentlessly heavy.

They left it focused on the darkness, even though hope was right there on the page, bleeding over from the true story in real life. The reward was there for the taking, but they sacrificed it on moral grounds. For a call to action. And no matter what good intentions they had behind that, I can't like it. It was good in a filmmaking sense. The cast was good. The characters were great. It forced me into the world it built, and it successfully accomplished its goal. But I hated watching it.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

Fortunately, I can still say I don't hate any of the Mission: Impossible movies, and say that there's a certain amount of merit to all of them. Unfortunately, Dead Reckoning's merit isn't as prominent as the series has achieved; and more unfortunately, it doesn't have the fallback that Mission: Impossible 2 takes advantage of, where you can call the melodramatic silliness "fun" (if so inclined) and "different" (to point out that the movie certainly does try its own thing.)

It's nice when a movie can slip and still be enjoyable. But right now, a movie that doesn't slip at all is worth its weight in gold.

Dead Reckoning. Part one. One complement I can get out of the way is, even though it's a "Part One," it doesn't leave us hanging as far as feeling like we've seen a complete movie. We know there's more to see, but the movie does fulfill everything it sets out to accomplish. Director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have now done three of these movies together, and it's unlikely they'd take an obvious misstep. No; instead, what they should have been worried about was that the groove they established in the series with Rogue Nation would too quickly become a rut. Fallout didn't pack the thematic/character punch that Rogue Nation did, but the stunts and visual entertainment was so stunning that I was willing to brush it off as a natural ebb and flow of quality. The next movie would right it.

But it didn't. And, I'm sorry to say, the action element has dropped off now, too. First, thematically, the movie is about the kind of honorable duty involved in taking a job in a secret agency that will disavow you the second you get into trouble—while sending you off to get in trouble as your job. Ethan and Co. meet up with and befriend Hayley Atwell as Grace, a highly skilled thief, and through friendship and loyalty, tempt her over to the good side. The idea is nice. "If you're going to risk your life for something, risk it for your friends and the good of the world." But while that's a simplistic enough idea, it still doesn't come through the plot so much as it is told to us (and Grace) outright through dialogue. And in so doing, it's implied that every MIF agent used to do high-skill illegal activities, got caught for it, and joined the MIF after a subsequent offer. 

Little comedy is attempted in favor of drama—which fails to land, and yet is so benign that it neither moved nor irritated me.

This series has undone the choices of past movies before, but this, I'd call ret-conning. And unnecessary. It's a small thing, maybe, and ignorable. But I like the characters here, and find the implications annoyingly simplistic, verging on outright stupidity. Anyone who's seen M:I3 knows newbie Benji lacked the constitution for illegal activity! And from the start Ethan has always been the boy scout type. It's just doesn't ring true, and you don't need them all to be ex-criminals to make joining the IMF "the right choice." In fact, it lessens Grace's character, who was unique for being a lone wolf and amoral. If all of them made the switch, why should we wonder whether she will or not? So, if the plot had been constructed to better show Grace's conversion, they could've stayed away from that regrettable "backstory." 

But the plot has its own issues to deal with in a less than ideal manner. It's crafted more to implement action set pieces and struggles to find a dynamic way toward the goal. It's a McGuffin plot, which, I admit, I don't mind at all. The action was my favorite parts, but there's no denying it's a step down from the feats this series has pulled off in the past. Tom Cruise does his thing and hurls himself off a cliff on a motorcycle, but what isn't in-camera looks faker than I've ever seen M:I look. The "ramp" he takes the motorcycle off for one; and the set piece of the falling train also has some digital elements that dampen the relentless thrill that scene is meant to impart. A few liberties with physics are taken (which must be bad if I notice it!) and a handful of other head-scratching choices. 

It's like joining the M:I movies is the movie star version of going to summer camp or something. Try something new; get out of your comfort zone for a while. (I dunno, I never went to a summer camp.)

At home, when senseless things happen in silly movies and people ask why, I like to jokingly point out that the movie needed them to so the next thing could happen. Unfortunately, that thought occurred to me a few too many times here, too. It's just not inspired; the creative juices didn't flow, and so now the story doesn't either. As a whole, it's a mess, but in small bites of compartmentalized sequences, it can be fun. Ethan and Grace's car chase sticks out as a highlight because it does what I've come to like uniquely about McQuarrie's installments: playing action and character interaction off each other. Atwell pairs well with Cruise and seems game with the stunts. And while the car chase they tag team in gets a little Buster Keaton, that's part of the charm for me. 

I could happily see a movie every three years that is exactly that—fun, sometimes silly action performed in-camera by characters who are saving the world because their friends live in it. But that's not to say there isn't better and worse ways to do it. Dead Reckoning isn't the worst ever, but there's nothing better about it, either.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Back to the Future

"Marty! You gotta come back with me!" "Where?"

The 80's were a great time for movies. But as far as 80's movies that fall solidly under the category of "Fun" and follow a teenaged lead, it's hard to find something truly remarkable. Movies like The Last Starfighter or Adventures in Babysitting may have a winning concept or teen appeal, but then the plots seem to spin their wheels for an hour or so without going anywhere, while the runtime is filled with character antics that grate on your nerves, fluffy, nonstarter side plots, and boring car chases. John Hughes had unique characters and romance, but what about adventure? Danger? High stakes? Back to the Future ticks every box. And it fulfills each category better than its competitors often can even fill one. 

It's easy for me to take things about it for granted. Like Marty, to start. He was established in my brain as that archetype from childhood. 80's teen. Main character. Running around, getting in and out of trouble for our enjoyment. He's the standard I hold others of the kind up to—and yet I've barely considered that's what I'm doing because I knew who and what Marty was before I knew how to define it. He seems so simple and straightforward; but watching this movie and paying attention to his characterization, it's astonishing how many moments are made to serve him. It's a plot movie. Marty is made to have an every-kid feel on purpose. But he's still so established. His life, personal dreams, girlfriend, that almost have no relevance to the time-traveling adventure. And yet, if he were never in a band, we'd never have the show-stopping Johnny B. Goode performance. And that's the best dang scene in the whole movie!

Then give it all to Michael J. Fox to play and I have to check my taking-things-for-granted tendency again. To me, they're one and the same person. And even if Fox is essentially playing himself, his balance of traits is calculated. He's goofy. But, pretty cool, actually. Charming, but with an accidental feel. He can win a beautiful girl, but he hangs out with an eccentric inventor. He's not the popular guy in school, but neither does he have to deal with bullies—unless you count the principal! We easily believe both his dumb, bumbling reactions to events, and his ability to jump into action with confident competence. The likes of Tom Holland have probably lost long hours of sleep over this characterization and how balanced and blended it all is. I think Fox has a lot to do with it. But also the writing can't be ignored. It gives him so much to work with for such a tonally light character. 

And all that being said, my favorite character has long been Crispin Glover's George McFly. What's a transformation! What awful oily hair! What sincere, aching blue eyes! Watching Marty work to gift his parents with a happier, more fulfilled life has always been the highlight of the movie for me. The time travel is the fun part—that allows us to go through the extreme ups and downs of the family drama. George and Lorraine both seem hopeless losers, but all that can turn around in one immaculately set-up, powerful moment—and then seal it with a song, a kiss, and a song—as only a true 80's movie can. After how beautifully and satisfyingly that thread concludes, I often forget that Marty still has to, you know, get back to the future and all that.

The movie really has to go to work on the third act wrapping up because of how many threads it has going. And having each one conclude in ways you don't quite expect (but that make perfect sense because the set-up was there but not projected) really makes the whole last third of the movie feel like a rollercoaster of thrills and heartwarming victory—where the highs are high and the lows are high, too. Even when we're finally allowed to settle, after all the good news is out, it's not long before they're off again, promising more and more in the next movie. Even if you don't go right into the sequel (which I rarely do) the euphoric feeling sticks. How do they do it? How do they make every subplot feel vital—and each payoff feel inevitable and also like beating the odds?

Such an interesting love story because it's not about who loves who, will-they-won't-they, but it comes from a very honest perspective: "These two HAVE to end up together. Here's how." 

All I can figure is that when every detail and facet of your story is important and useful and built upon each other, it hides which ones will be used for the next payoff. Or maybe it's all so extraordinarily entertaining that you look past the moments of set up. Because even if they weren't used to set something up, they were still good moments that elevate, deepen, and give momentum to the story. Not a second wasted. Not a moment falling short. All as a fun 80's scifi teen adventure, with all the life-or-death situations, romance, and chase sequences you could ask for. That, and Doc's wide-eyed crazy expressions, too. I love this movie; and that's one thing about it I could never take for granted.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin


Ireland, 1923. As a Civil War takes place on the mainland, a smaller Civil War begins on the secluded island of Inisherin—between two friends. Pádraic and Colm. Former friends now—Colm decides he doesn't want to be Pádraic's friend anymore, and though the squabble may sound like the petty whims of a five-year old, Colm takes his decision seriously. Very seriously. And Pádraic is left to wonder what went wrong.

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh

McDonagh is one of those directors with a small but incredibly rich filmography. He's made three other feature films besides this one, and each is brimming with a je ne sais quoi that I can only call his "style." All directors have a style, some easier to spot, and some easier to describe. McDonagh's is easy to spot—his movies are dark comedies and involve bizarrely bold plot and character choices—but almost impossible to describe when it comes to the sense he evokes. For me, anyway, which is probably why he interests me so much. I often find myself returning to movies where I felt like I understood it, but then can't prove it to myself in words. I keep coming back until I can. And if I continue this trend, I'll be revisiting The Banshees of Inisherin soon.

It's a more complicated case than McDonagh's previous films though. Putting aside my comprehension skills, I didn't enjoy The Banshees of Inisherin as much as I have his other work. There were sections of the movie that felt like a bad dream, or a horror movie that I wasn't expecting to be a horror movie. There was a terrifying feeling of dread—which I have to admit is a great compliment to the craft and creativity here—that I didn't know what would happen. That doesn't sound scary, typed out. But imagine the most extreme, unnerving feeling of the unknown. Walking through pitch black in your house, thinking you know where you are, but doubting. And then that doubt coming true. That's how parts of this movie felt. And I didn't like it. 

Great location. Wild, beautiful, and haunting. Very appropriate.

From an artistic standpoint, that can't really be anything but a compliment. But I can't judge movies on objective artistry alone, because how a story moves me is important to defining its quality. Yes, this story moved me; but often in a negative way. I felt a lot of emptiness, a lot of sadness, and hopelessness. And as I write this I think back and I think there was supposed to be hope. And certainly there was meaning. And maybe if I just watch it again knowing what is going to happen will allow me to feel those positive elements better, and understand the hope of the story in my heart, not just my head. Maybe, maybe, maybe. 

What I know is objectively great, and what brought out the entertainment of the piece for me was the writing and the acting. There are individual scenes in this movie that achieve a sort of storytelling version of laminar flow—unbroken surface, everything in perfect alignment with everything else, everything working toward the same clear goal. McDonagh's writing skills are masterful, both in characterization, and in dialogue that is like eating an entire platter of a delicacy. Most good movies have one or two bites of such precise work; here they can occur one scene after the other, until it's rare to find a moment that isn't uniquely captivating. 

McDonagh is one of few directors who allow Farrell to be Irish, and it brings out wonderful facets of personality.

The cast falls into this aforementioned laminar flow without disrupting anything, and bring their characters to full, colorful life. Absolute masterclass performances for characterization and brilliant, unforgettable line delivery. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's easy chemistry is good to watch, and both also give tight, complex performances. Farrell carries the film though, and makes the plot's strange twists and turns feel plausible, bringing out the dark comedy tone. Without him hitting the right notes, this story easily could have felt downright unredeemable. He holds the line between the sincere and the absurd. Smaller standouts are Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan in supporting roles. I especially loved Condon because her character reflected my feelings in witnessing the story unfold.

Of them all, I was rooting for her the most. And, I think that was intentional. I think Martin McDonagh made me think and feel everything that he intended to. And that deserves accolades. I respect it. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong here. Whether it be some misstep of reason which means the truth of the story is a mistake, or whether it's simply a distaste for the way the truth is exposed—either way, I think it's best if this review goes unresolved.