Category: Foreign Film

Double Feature: Science and Monsters in Godzilla (1954) and Jurassic Park (1993)

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Seen: Both at the Somerville Theatre, but on different nights.

Recently the Somerville Theatre showed a restored print of the original Godzilla, and though it was a digital presentation it was decidedly excellent to see it on a big screen. On this viewing, I found myself continually finding parallels to Jurassic Park, which had shown at the same theater a few weeks earlier, so I thought it might be fun to do a little comparison piece thingie. (I don’t know, I’ve never done anything quite like this before, what would you call it?) Of course, both are films about monsters, but more specifically, both are films about essentially man-made monsters, allowing their stories to act as commentary on the hubris inherent to human science. In Jurassic Park, Richard Attenborough’s kindly Scottish millionaire, John Hammond, is a boy playing with very dangerous toys: he’s loved dinosaurs since he was a tot and now that the technology exists to recreate them he just kind of dives in without truly considering the consequences. There is no direct correlation in Godzilla, but the themes are similar. The titular monster is a fusion of ancient animal might and twentieth-century nuclear experimentation, another example of man going “against nature” in their quest for social and intellectual superiority. It’s a common thread found in science-fiction, but one made more grave by the actual (and very recent) history of nuclear destruction in Japan.

In Godzilla, the threat of annihilation feels all too real, and the ramifications of radiation and bomb deployment have already been felt. The monster itself is a product of that technology, as well as a metaphor for it- brutally violent and hopelessly unstoppable. It is ultimately a ridiculous premise, with a legacy made sillier by lighter sequels, but that connection to reality gives it a believably dramatic tone. For Jurassic Park, a quintessential Hollywood summer blockbuster if there ever was one, the larger context is of course not so dire. There are no cities destroyed, no threat of radiation poisoning, no lost mothers and fathers (but a few villains). The story is more contained, and a bit more personal. But the monsters are still there. And it’s still humans’ fault.

The scientist protagonists, at first excited and bewildered by the resuscitation of extinct dinosaurs, gradually question the morality and the safety of Hammond’s actions. They realize that just because the technology exists, doesn’t necessarily mean we should use it, regardless of the knowledge it could potentially give us (Hammond’s tacky theme-park angle doesn’t really help legitimize it, either). Similar realizations are reached in Godzilla, with hunky scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) conflicted over the use of his new invention: a device that removes oxygen from surrounding air or water and effectively sucks the life out of all creatures. What is his responsibility as the creator of such a weapon, is it up to him to hide it from the world so it can never be used? Even if it might be the only thing that can stop another form of destruction that’s currently terrorizing his community? Like John Hammond, he ultimately decides to employ the technology despite its potentially hazardous effects, but he also ensures that no one else can ever use it again, and no one else will be harmed after he uses it to stop Godzilla.

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The final major parallel between Godzilla and Jurassic Park that I considered during my viewing was the relationships between three central characters, whose dynamics reflect a bit of their own times and cultures. Drs. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are all scientists, and all presumably equals in intellect and position. Neill is made the main hero, spending a night protecting two children from dinosaur attacks, but Dern is certainly not a passive character, valiantly fighting to save her partner and others on the island. Goldblum is both the comic relief as well as the victimized eye candy, spending most of his time after the dinosaurs break out holed up in a bunker with a broken leg and a shirt that can’t seem to stay buttoned. The sexual tension between the three is present but minimal due to Satler and Grant’s presumed engagement (?) or at least openly romantic status, though it’s clear Malcolm’s frequent passes at Satler aren’t helping Grant feel secure in their relationship. The romantic lead in Godzilla, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), is a good-hearted, uncomplicated man of action, while the brilliant and tortured Serizawa is struggling with Big Issues. Their only thing in common seems to be Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the current fiance of Ogata and previous fiance of Serizawa. She is a smart and kind woman but generally takes a backseat to the men surrounding her, these intelligent scientists and heroic ship captains. Her main power comes from her ability to persuade and counsel these men, as well as gain information. Serizawa’s sacrifice at the end makes him the true hero, an understandable development given the cultural significance of suicide in Japan.

Godzilla and Jurassic Park are both excellent films, exciting and well-made, with lizard monsters on the rampage. They speak to a fear and respect of twentieth-century science coupled with an awe of ancient nature and its unpredictability. The former is very specific to Japan and its history, while the latter is noticably American in its Hollywood spectacle and Spielbergian sentiment. I love them both, and now I realize I love them both together. The combined Hunk Power of Jeff Goldblum and Akihiko Hirata certainly helps.

Festival Review: IFF Boston Screenings

Though my various work commitments kept me from experiencing the full festival, I was able to take in four films at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, and they were all varying levels of good! I’m kind of behind on blogging so I decided to compile all my festival reviews together into one post, so they’ll be short.

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First up was my number one priority, Obvious Child. Based on the short of the same name, the film stars Jenny Slate as Donna, an aspiring stand-up comedian who loses her boyfriend and her job back-to-back. After wallowing for a bit she allows herself a one-night stand with a cute but fairly strait-laced boy named Max (Jake Lacey), whom she meets at the bar where she performs. A short time later she realizes she is pregnant, and decides to get an abortion as she is not ready (personally or financially) to be a parent. In the weeks before the procedure she renews contact with Max and they sort of think about dating, but she struggles with telling him about the results of their first night together.

Obvious Child is basically the kind of pro-choice romantic comedy I wanted it to be- it’s just a genuinely enjoyable, relatable film with a hilarious performance from Slate and a lot of ladycentric positivity. It did a good job of stretching the premise of the short to feature-length without overcomplicating the story. The script treats abortion as a regular thing, something many women experience (in fact, all three main women characters in this movie have had it), and it isn’t seeking to become an “issue” movie. It’s just part of the story. Essentially, it’s all a showcase for Slate, who is so so so so funny and I hope she has an amazing comedy career. A neat bit of trivia about this movie is I know someone who was an extra! They filmed one of the later scenes at the Planned Parenthood where my friend Sammy used to work, and she’s in the background of some shots. Cool, huh?

 

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Two nights later I caught my second-most priority film, Dear White People. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the film tracks the events leading up to a so-called “riot” at an on-campus party through the eyes of four black students. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring filmmaker whose notorious radio “Dear White People” mocks contemporary race relations. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is a quiet writer seeking a place to fit in- feeling cut off from both the gay and black communities but hoping to make friends at the school newspaper. Coco (Teyonah Paris), who doesn’t accept Sam’s aggressive stance, dreams of being a reality star, and works to create a persona to make herself more viable. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is a popular poli-sci major who wants to try comedy writing, but is pushed into more distinguished extracurricular activities by his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of students. Their fates become intertwined at an ill-conceived party held by an elite house full of white assholes, technically “hip hop” themed but really just an excuse for white people to mimic black stereotypes and in some cases don blackface.

Biting in its satire and liberally sprinkled with both regular jokes and meta-jokes, Dear White People is a telling glimpse into race relations on American campuses while also being a fantastic film in general. It’s funny and fast-paced, a little bit cheesy at the right parts and subtle in its analysis of the many intersections of race, class, gender, history, and prejudice. The protagonists are navigating a tricky environment, trying to find where they feel comfortable while understanding the pre-conceived notions held by their peers as well as their elders. The film is about all those deep-seated assumptions we all carry with us, so deeply ingrained in our society we don’t always realize they’re there. Writer/director Justin Simien tackles these issues with wit and heart, and an interesting juxtaposition of under- and over-statement. I loved the cast (who are all insanely attractive), the script, and the style, and came out of it thinking about my own experiences in college and those of my friends of color. Ultimately I loved it, but recognized that I’m not really who this movie is for. Which is actually great.

ALSO! I have to mention how excited I was to see Malcolm Barrett in a supporting role. He is one of my (many) favorite things about Better Off Ted.

 

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I followed up Dear White People almost immediately with Ti West’s The Sacrament, a big shift in both tone and cast diversity since it’s mostly about white dudes. This found-footage thriller stars Joe Swanberg, AJ Bowen, and Kentucker Audley as VICE journalists investigating a mysterious cult that began in the United States but moved to an unknown jungle location (presumably in South America) to build a utopian commune. Their leader (Gene Jones), known only as “Father”, is an intelligent Southern gentleman who preaches tolerance, togetherness, and living off the land. Their world seems like a paradise- indeed, many of their inhabitants call it just that- but, as with all cults I guess, there’s a seedy underbelly waiting to be exposed.

Generally employing the found-footage angle well (except for one big misstep at the end that really bothered me), The Sacrament builds gradually into a really fucked up finish, which I guess is Ti West’s basic style of filmmaking. It’s interesting for its showing-but-not-telling kind of approach, dropping hints as to what is really going on in the commune but rarely coming and saying it. The supporting cast is excellent, with the creepy-charismatic Gene Jones and the incredibly versatile Amy Seimetz. I thought the main characters were all kind of boring though, like there’s nothing memorable about them. They’re just these regular kinda bro-y white dudes, and I wasn’t especially invested in their plight. But the story surrounding them is engaging enough that I would recommend the movie as a whole. The final sequence is some intense shit, my god.

 

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The closing film of the festival was Mood Indigo, Michel Gondry’s latest feature. Based on the novel by Boris Vian, the movie focuses on Colin (Romain Duris), an independently wealthy layabout who coasts by on charm and magical realism. He meets and immediately falls for Chloé (Audrey Tatou), and they marry after six months together. They have a grand time living, hanging out with Colin’s multi-talented lawyer-chef Nicolas (Omar Sy) and other eccentric friends, but then Chloé contracts a mysterious illness and things take a turn. The film progresses steadily from a light-hearted romantic comedy into a hopeless tragedy, with the colors literally sapped away by the final scenes.

I’ve always loved Gondry’s visual sensibilities, his techniques and special effects and sheer imagination are just wonderful, so I’m always happy to see one of his narrative features on a big screen. Mood Indigo is whimsical as fuck, incorporating all kinds of weird cutesy effects- including stop motion animation, time lapse, forced perspective, and color shifts. I loved the bizarre lecture with enigmatic writer Partre, the animated food, the behind-the-scenes typists who wrote Colin’s story, the encroaching fungal growth that filled the house as Chloé’s illness worsened. I could tell its tonal switch didn’t work for a lot of the audience, who were surprised and confused by the totally downer ending. I had been warned it was a really sad movie so I was ready for it. I didn’t mind the shift so much, because to me it was an interesting experiment in style- we know how Gondry’s whimsical point of view can give us comedy and romance, but how does it reflect tragedy? How do these magical, saccharine elements work themselves into a sadder story? What did bother me was how shallow the whole affair felt, how little we actually know about these characters, and yet we’re supposedly meant to care about them and their problems by the end. It’s not like I hated it, but I enjoyed it almost purely on a visual level, recognizing that the story itself was barely there if you stripped away the stylish narrative techniques.

Movie Review: Wadjda (2013)

Wadjda

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

Once in a while I remember my ancient quest to see a film from every country with a film industry, a goal I very, very gradually work toward. A few months ago I found out about Wadjda, the first film directed by a Saudi woman, and likely the first feature shot entirely within Saudi Arabia. Pioneering filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour was inspired by her spunky niece to craft this tale about a bold schoolgirl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), who dreams of getting a bicycle so she can race against a boy in her neighborhood (Abdullrahman Al Gohani). She schemes to make the money to afford it, selling contraband jewelry at school and eventually competing in a Quran-recitation contest for the top prize. Meanwhile, at home her mother (Reem Abdullah) struggles to please her husband, who threatens to find a new wife who can bear him a son.

Entirely focused on women’s day-to-day experience, Wadjda takes a seemingly simple premise and uses it to reveal a larger context. Al-Mansour stresses that though there are many limitations placed on women in Saudi Arabia, they still have lives to lead, and they aren’t passive. In this world, women’s domain is the kitchen, the bedroom, the classroom; their interactions are primarily with other women- mothers, daughters, teachers, coworkers, friends. These quiet, private spaces and interactions are the true focus of the film, with Wadjda’s schemes to procure a bicycle basically serving as a framing device. The relationship she has with her mother forms the core, as they navigate the harsh realities of a devout, patriarchal society that they must find small ways to combat. We root for Wadjda to get her bike because it symbolizes her irrepressible spirit, and because you can just tell she’s going to make it work. She represents the new generation, in which Al-Mansour sees hope for a more progressive culture.

It’s not all some exposé on gender roles in Saudi Arabia, Wadjda is primarily just a really great film. As the title character, Waad Mohammed is adorable and hilarious and downright plucky. She speaks her mind and pushes against conservative restrictions placed on her, but finds her elders are more and more stringent, likely due to her sort of in-between age. Her defiance is admirable but ultimately kind of pointless. Luckily, her mom is awesome and together they made me cry. Also her little friend is a sweetie and I’m pretty sure their relationship will be a more caring, open-minded one than Wadjda’s parents, if only because he seems to like her DGAF attitude. Their interactions are very funny, and feel realistic.

I know very little about life in Saudi Arabia, or Muslim culture in the Middle East, so I would never presume to understand what it is like for women living there. But I appreciated Al-Mansour’s seemingly even-handed take on it, as she is careful to show honest experience without condemnation or melodrama. For me, the glimpse into the private lives of these women was enlightening, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels to women in my own family, and especially relationships between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters. The director’s ultimate message seems to be that things are very tough for women in this environment- where they’re not allowed to drive or interact with men outside their families- but there’s no doubt they’ll persevere, and gradually things will get better. And maybe one day Wadjda will be president or something. You never know.

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m leaning towards something like Pan’s Labyrinth or Tideland mainly because the main characters’ ages are similar, but those are also way darker. Maybe something like Saved!, which is a little peppier and also deals with religious restrictions placed on young women.

Festival Review: The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014) at 366 Weird Movies

Strange Color of Your Body's Tears

Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, part of the Boston Underground Film Festival.

I remember when Amer came out some years ago and it caught my eye first for its truly gorgeous poster, and second for its female co-director/co-writer, Hélène Cattet, since there aren’t a ton of women making horror films. I never actually got around to see Amer, but I did take advantage of BUFF’s screening of The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, the Belgian directing duo’s latest feature. Stylishly surreal, visually sumptuous, and employing a range of different techniques, the film is beautiful and weird in many ways but unfortunately suffers from a dragged-out pace and tedious repetition. I started out really engaged but ended up just feeling really uncomfortable for two hours. I wrote a longer response to it over at 366 Weird Movies, so check it out!

An aside: The best part of the screening was actually the short film shown before the feature, “Belagile” by local director Anastasia Cazabon. It’s got witches and a catchy lo-fi pop soundtrack and self-empowerment and psychedelic color schemes. Cazabon works at the Brattle Theatre (where BUFF takes place) and filmed part of it there, so it was neat to see a recognizable setting!

Movie Review: Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) (2014)

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Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

It seems for months I’ve been hearing about Miyazaki’s latest film, The Wind Rises. Possibly the acclaimed anime director’s final feature, it has for many proven to be a fitting end, a metaphorical journey through Miyazaki’s own creative struggles and achievements. Based on his own comic, which itself loosely draws from actual history, the film centers on Jirô Horikoshi, who as a child in the 1910s dreams of being a pilot but instead becomes an airplane designer when he realizes his poor eyesight would hinder him. We watch Jirô grow up into a quiet, hardworking young man who devotes himself to his craft, studying harder than his classmates and eventually going to work for a top aircraft manufacturer. Many of his ideas fail, but as a greater world war draws ever closer he pushes forward with a radical design that will prove to be his life’s most important work. Meanwhile, he meets and falls in love with Nahoko, a charming young painter suffering from tuberculosis.

With his typical emotional nuance and breathtaking visuals, Miyazaki has crafted a fitting end to his sizable oeuvre, if this does indeed turn out to be his final film. The grandiose, painterly backgrounds are to die for, especially the billowy clouds and detailed attention to wind effects. The characters are grounded and interesting, with notes of humor and sentimentality playing throughout the more serious main plot. Through Jirô, Miyazki allows us to glimpse a significant and fascinating period in Japanese history, a time of rapid industrialization, increased militarization, economic struggle, clashing cultures, and growing nationalism. The film is dramatic but fanciful, sweeping in its vision but still focused on small moments, and decidedly intimate.

I just wish I liked it more.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. The visuals really are top-notch, up there with Miyazaki’s very best. I adored the many dreamscape flying sequences, rife with soft pink light and visible brushstrokes in the clouds, with rustling grasses and wind-whipped hair. And I really loved this view of Japanese history, especially since it’s one of the few non-Western cultures whose history I’ve actually studied so I felt like I could contextualize things a bit more. He takes care to show us the mix of old and new, of Japanese tradition and Western novelty, though these hints are often more in the background (clothing, buildings, products, etc). The characters are generally likable and interesting, and I especially appreciated the kooky German ex-pat who warns Jirô of things to come.

But. As the film progressed it became increasingly difficult for me to root for Jirô, or even watch him, primarily because of his apparent forced ignorance. Throughout the film he is visited by a vision of Caproni, an early Italian aeronautical engineer, who tells his protegee that though his creations are beautiful, they may be put to violent use by others, just as his own planes were used in World War I. But he encourages Jirô to think big and make planes anyway. Jiro essentially dedicates his entire life to this idea: What he is making will DEFINITELY be used to slaughter people, but he’s gonna keep doing it anyway because of… dreams? What’s frustrating is that the character- who is otherwise shown to be thoughtful, compassionate, and kind- seems willfully ignorant, never fully considering the ramifications of his work even though he discusses it multiple times. He would have these conversations with his fellow engineer Honjô, asking about the war and politics and such, and he would just sort of dumbly say “but why are people fighting?”, think briefly about how it’s too bad airplanes are used in wars, and then shake his head and go back to designing airplanes. It was as if he couldn’t connect all the dots, so by the end of the film when his long-awaited final aircraft design is used by the Japanese military and all the pilots die (presumably along with various civilians and enemy soldiers), he’s all sad about it as if he didn’t foresee this completely obvious thing. I mean, if he didn’t want his planes to be in battle, maybe don’t work for a company that makes planes for the military. It’d be one thing if he was a militant nationalist who actually believed in Japan’s goals of expansion, but he acted more like a disinterested observer. I know he thinks his creative dreams are beautiful but if they’re employed for violence then it is his responsibility to STOP MAKING FUCKING BOMBERS FOR THE MILITARY. By the end of the film I was furious with this character, and had absolutely no sympathy for him because he knowingly aided in mass destruction, and for no other reason than he wanted to see his personal dreams realized. This is not an apt metaphor for Miyazaki’s art, because as far as I know his films don’t ensure the deaths of thousands of people. (Of course, I know there are parallels to how art can be co-opted by corrupt/commercial forces, but to me this really isn’t the same level. Though if it’s secretly a big fuck you to Disney, I guess I’ll take it.)

I’m not saying that Miyazaki is promoting these ideas. The film is clearly anti-war, and at times it pointedly criticizes Japan’s and Germany’s actions in the buildup to WWII. But I think I as a viewer was supposed to feel sympathy for Jirô, to believe in him and his ideas, to want him to succeed. But I just couldn’t, because ultimately that blood was on his hands. He never fought against the war, never worked to ensure his ideas weren’t used for violence. Even the subplot of his romance with Nahoko, which was completely fictionalized and I assume added to humanize him more, fell flat for me. Her character was barely fleshed out, just a prop for him to lean on, supposedly inspired by love or whatever. She herself was shown to be a painter, but never is her own creative output discussed- Was she in art school? Was she painting professionally or just as a hobby? Why did she choose to paint in the Western Impressionist style instead of returning to traditional Japanese styles, as many contemporary artists were? You’d think there would be conversations comparing Nahoko’s creative aspirations and experiences with Jirô’s, but nope. She was just there to encourage him in his work and not have much of her own personality, putting on a brave face while slowly dying of tuberculosis.

I feel like many other people who’ve seen this movie aren’t reading it the same way I am, so perhaps I need a few more viewings to solidify my opinion. I hate having negative feelings about a Miyazaki film, it goes against my nature. I really did like so many aspects of The Wind Rises, from the period setting and entertaining side characters to the fanciful dream sequences and wondrous visual design. But I can’t move past the reservations I have about Jirô’s character and his actions, whether or not it’s all meant to be a grand metaphor for the creative process. I’m still sort of working through my feelings about it, and wondering about Miyazaki’s intended response (if he had one). Need to read some more, I think, but I wanted to get my initial thoughts down.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: I was so taken with all the history stuff, it reminded me of Millennium Actress, which similarly moves across Japan’s mid-twentieth-century history through its central character, this time a beloved film actress.