"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Rojo: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. An exquisitely well-made and deliriously insightful film that, although set in Argentina in the 1970’s, tells an uncomfortable truth about our current time.

Language: Spanish with subtitles in English

Rojo, written and directed by Benjamin Naishtat, is the story of Claudio, a small-town lawyer navigating the moral and ethical maze of 1975 Argentina. The film stars Dario Grandinetti as Claudio, with supporting turns from Andrea Frigerio, Alfredo Castro and Diego Cremonesi.

I knew absolutely nothing about Rojo when I made the trek to the local art house to see it the same week I saw Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. After suffering through the abysmal cinema of the first half of 2019, it was an absolute joy to stumble upon this hidden foreign gem the same week Tarantino’s surefire Oscar nominee hit big screens.

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Rojo is an exquisite piece of cinema and art that boasts as impressive and compelling an opening scene as any film in recent memory. The movie sinks its teeth in early, but then wraps itself around you so slowly, and seductively, you won’t notice until it is too late and you are deep in its grip. Once captive to its unflinching exploration humanity, its subtly haunting sub-text, and off-beat charm, you are gifted a brilliant mix of psuedo-Lynchian oddities, and a plethora of unnerving personal, psychological and political insights.

What makes Rojo so exquisite is that it is most definitely THE film for our time. Set in the 1970’s in Argentina, the film tells the story of how fascism thrives in the moral and ethical vacuum in our hearts and souls. Even the most minute moral or ethical corruption can give authoritarianism a foothold in our hearts, from which it, like the film itself, wraps itself around us and squeezes not only the life, but humanity, out of us all. Rojo reveals that all of us are complicit, either explicitly or implicitly, with the brutality of authoritarianism, and are so easily seduced through selfishness or laziness to aid and abet in horrors we think we are incapable of committing.

Rojo beautifully uses symbolism to tell a much deeper story, such as the castration of a bull to show how primal masculinity must be isolated and neutered in order to eliminate true threats to any fascist movement, or a recurring theme of flies to show how authoritarianism treats an incessant but weak resistance…by tiring it out so that it is too exhausted to be a threat. Under authoritarianism, exhaustion is a major issue as we the people are reduced to nothing more than flies, buzzing from one instigation to another, and ultimately are left with nothing but a carcass or a pile of shit to feed upon.

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Besides being a compelling and insightful story, the film is fascinating to look at. Cinematographer Pedro Sotero shoots the film so that it looks like grainy film stock from the 1970’s, which enhances the feel of authenticity. Sotero shows himself to be a master craftsman as he uses some delicious 70’s era zooms, camera movement and optical tricks (like my old friend the split diopter!) that create both a familiarity and an overall sense of uneasiness that permeates every shot in the film. .

The cast is spectacular, with lead actor Dario Grandinetti gives a nuanced, intricate, subtle, magnetic and thoroughly captivating performance. Grandinetti’s Claudio is at once arrogant and petulant but also insecure and fragile. Grandinetti’s ability to make Cluadio so painfully ordinary, yet unaware of his ordinariness, is a testament to the complexity of the character and the enormity of the actor’s talent. Grandinetti is a special actor and he is at his very best as Claudio.

As for the rest of the cast, Andrea Frigerio does solid work as Claudio’s wife, Susana, as does Diego Cremonisi who plays a mysterious stranger. The most interesting, bizarre and entertaining character though is Detective Sinclair, played by Alfredo Castro. Sinclair is like a cop from a David Lynch movie, and his unstoppable persistence and insistence is comically unsettling, as he is a wonderful representative of the rabid relentlessness of fascism.

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With Rojo, writer/director Benjamin Naishtat proves himself to be a cinematic force with which to be reckoned. One of Naishtat’s greatest skills is his ability to create such a believable sense of place (he is greatly aided by his cinematographer, and his set and costume designers) as well as his thorough understanding of human nature and psychology. Naishtat uses cinema to tell greater and important truths not just about his characters and Argentina in the 1970’s, but about us and America today, and that is a rare and precious skill.

In conclusion, I was absolutely captivated by this somewhat off-beat, but entirely insightful foreign film that, even though it is set in Argentina in the 1970’s, spoke more clearly about America and the American people than most Hollywood movies could ever imagine.

I thoroughly encourage any and all cinephiles to make the effort to go see this film if they can find it. I also encourage non-cinephiles who have a bit of an adventurous mind, to seek out and give this movie a chance either on cable, Netflix or any other streaming service where you can find it. The reason I am imploring people to give this movie a chance is not only because I want more movies like it to be made, but also because this movie is a warning to all of us that we need to be ever vigilant to the growing menace of authoritarianism and fascism…not just in the world, but in the one place where it can do the most damage…in our own hearts.

©2019

Midsommar: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. A flawed, but creepy and symbolically rich horror movie that is both deeply unsettling and mythologically satisfying. If you love horror movies then go see it in the theatre, but for everyone else watch it on Netflix or cable.

Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, is the story of Dani, a young women in emotional turmoil who accompanies her lukewarm boyfriend on a trip to Harga, an isolated rural commune in Finland, for a once in every 90 years religious festival. The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, with supporting turns from Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter.

Midsommar describes itself as a “folk horror film”, which is an intriguing twist on the horror formula. In general I am not a fan of horror movies, the ones I do enjoy, like The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, are more great movies of horror than they are great horror movies. Those movies deal with the occult and spiritual horror as opposed to just slasher or monster type movies, and that is probably why I appreciate them so much.

Midsommar is director Ari Aster’s second feature film, his first was last year’s Hereditary, another ambitious horror film. I liked Hereditary and even though it was flawed I thought Aster showed a great deal of potential as a filmmaker as he coaxed some terrific performances out of his leads Toni Collette and Alex Wolff and put together some really gripping sequences. Hereditary was also chock full of really rich symbolism and sub-text…so much so that I wrote an entire piece about it.

Hereditary’s biggest flaw was that Aster’s creative eyes were bigger than his directorial stomach…which is my way of saying that Aster is a better writer than a director as he was unable to entirely capture the entirety of his unique vision on film.

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Midsommar is a worthy follow up to Hereditary, and is very similar in many ways as the film boasts a stellar female performance at its center and has a wildly creepy and unsettling story at its center. Midsommar is also bursting with insightful symbolism and sub-text that make it a very layered film. Hereditary and Midsommar are also twins in that they explore a dark occult underbelly to the rather benign settings of suburbia and a seemingly gentle Finnish commune respectively.

Sadly though, the similarities don’t end there as Midsommar also suffers from the same ailment that hampered Hereditary, namely that the narrative was too dramatically unwieldy for the director Aster to tame fully.

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The very best thing about the film is the performance of Florence Pugh, who won a Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award in 2016 for the independent drama Lady MacBeth, and lives up to that promise in Midsommar. Pugh is so spot on in her characterization that it is at times uncomfortable to watch. Pugh’s Dani is deeply and specifically wounded and reeks of desperation, so much so that she relentlessly needs to accommodate others to an embarrassing degree. The camera adores Pugh as she is blessed with an exquisitely perfect face that is both stunningly gorgeous and approachable. Pugh’s magnetism and girl-next-door beauty are used to great affect as it makes Dani’s insecurity and low self-esteem a conflicting yet captivating mess.

Dani’s at best indifferent boyfriend, Christian, is played by Jack Reynor, who sort of looks like a slightly less douchebaggy version of Seth Rogan. Reynor’s Christian is a pitch perfect asshole, and he wisely never goes over the top with his asshole-ishness, but it is certainly a palpable presence. Reynor as an actor is a bit overwhelmed by Pugh though, as he currently seems to lack the charisma and skill to go toe to toe with his very formidable leading lady. That said, to Reynor’s great credit he proves is certainly game for anything and shows he has enough balls (literally and figuratively) to try and tackle a role that ends up being just a bit out of his reach.

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Midsommar’s cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, does fantastic work as he captures the pseudo-David Lynchian creepiness beneath the quaint facade of the commune. Pogorzelski uses the midnight sun of Finland effectively to create a disorienting visual experience that is subtly alarming. There are psychedelic sequences where Pogorzelski shows his talent in not overwhelming the viewer with obviousness but rather makes the delirious experience so seamless as to be unnerving. There are also some deliciously well-done shots using the reflections from a mirror or a television set that I thought were glorious. Pogorzelski worked on Hereditary as well and his style and skill definitely elevate both films.

The thing I liked the most about Midsommar was the symbolism and sub-text. This film, just like Hereditary, is bursting at the seams with political and social commentary that is hiding in plain sight. The commune at the center of the story is an alluring combination of old world folk religion, New Age spirituality, modern day social progressivism and extreme environmentalism. It is easy to imagine that the divergent anti-Trump resistance could come together to form the alleged utopia that is Harga.

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The character arc of Dani is that of the modern women who has put her needs second to those around her and has made herself small so that others feel big. As Dani goes through the odyssey of the commune she is forced to choose between the way things are now with her as a pliant caretaker to others, or the way things could be with a women in charge. In this way the film is, much like Hereditary, a commentary on the Trump presidency and the fall of Hillary and the rise of neo-feminism. While those things are potentially over-analyzed subjects in our current political and cultural climate, Aster does a magnificent job of deftly addressing these issues in an unconventional way and subtly layering the film’s inventive perspective throughout the film.

To be clear, I truly did enjoy Midsommar, just as I did Hereditary, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar does go a bit off the rails about two thirds of the way through and the film loses dramatic momentum. I think Aster’s biggest issue, in both films, is that the major beats of the story are not well placed in the narrative arc, and so the film feels a bit off in the final act.

In conclusion, while I think Ari Aster has slightly missed the mark with both Hereditary and Midsommar, I am very glad for his ambition and that he is out there making movies. I think he is a very original voice and his expansive ideas on horror and the nature of evil are remarkably insightful about the world in which we currently reside. I hope Aster keeps exploring the depths of that unique darkness that he shared with viewers in both Hereditary and Midsommar.

While Midsommar is not worth shelling out big bucks to see in a theatre, I do think it is worth seeing on Netflix or cable for “free” for Pugh’s performance alone. The movie is also genuinely creepy and not of the instantly forgettable horror movie formula that has grown so tiresome. Midsommar is definitely a flawed film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile or that the message it sends isn’t right on the money. If, at some point, you have a chance to check it out I think you should…it will unsettle you…and we all need to be unsettled every now and again.

©2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A unique and original film that is beautifully shot, dramatically compelling and painfully insightful.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, based on a story by Jimmie Fails and written and directed by Joe Talbot, is the story of Jimmie, a black man trying to reclaim his childhood house, a beautiful Victorian built by his grandfather in the 1940’s, that sits in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood. The film stars Jimmie Fails as Jimmie, with supporting turns from Jonathan Majors, Danny Glover and Mike Epps.

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Thus far, 2019 has been a pretty dismal year in terms of American film. Of the four lonely films I have recommended so far this year, all of them are foreign. Thankfully, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is like a tall, cool glass of cinematic water in the parched desert of American movies in 2019. The film, which is based upon a story created by its lead actor Jimmie Fails (who is black) and its director Joe Talbot (who is white), pulsates with a life, artistic vibrancy and intelligence that is an utter joy to behold.

On the surface the film examines gentrification in San Francisco and the consequences of it. What I really loved about the movie though is that it does not take the easy, emotionalist route in exploring this complicated issue. Although it is often lumped in as simply a racism issue, the changing face of a neighborhood is a result of a much more nuanced set of elements. For instance my white family (and extended family) were part of the white flight from Brooklyn in the 1970’s because the neighborhood was rapidly changing from Irish, Italian and Jewish to Haitian and Jamaican. It is easy to chalk this up as simply racism, but the reality is, regardless of race or ethnicity, people like to be around people who not only look like them, but have the same culture and relatively same belief system. This is why immigration is such a huge issue, it isn’t a function of racism but rather a function of cultural comfort. The same is true here in Los Angeles where black neighborhoods get really angry when white people move in because they feel the “essence” of the neighborhood is changing. That isn’t racism…it is human nature.

To the movie’s great credit it does not take the easy road in addressing this polarizing issue, but instead embraces the complexity and subtlety of it. Besides the maze that is gentrification, the film also dances through the minefield that is toxic black masculinity, black violence, myth and identity, the cancer of capitalism, self-deception, self-delusion and most especially…the importance of Truth.

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Jimmie yearns to return to the house of his childhood, which has no doubt been sanitized in his own mind. His dream of a return is fueled by his tumultuous life since leaving the house and the myth that gives meaning to the structure, namely that his grandfather built the house from the ground up in a Japanese neighborhood. Unlike the greedy white people taking over San Francisco now and pushing out minorities, Jimmie’s black grandfather didn’t steal anyone’s house, he defied racial stereotypes and oppression and created one from scratch.

Jimmie’s journey is a fascinating one, and while the actor Jimmie Fails (playing a character with the same name) is not the greatest actor in the world, he is certainly likable and does Yoeman’s work as the protagonist. Fails succeeds at being a worthy host for his two-hour narrative journey.

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The performance that I did find remarkable though was that of Jonathan Majors as Montgomery Allen, Jimmie’s best friend. Majors brings such a beautiful and delicate sense of humanity to Montgomery that it is mesmerizing. Montgomery is the consummate artist as he is a writer, director, actor, sketch artist, wardrobe…you name it, and because he is an artist he is motivated by only one thing…the Truth. Majors fills Allen with an off-beat but very specific and detailed intentionality that gives him an understated but undeniable charisma and power.

Danny Glover and Mike Epps have small roles in the film but do quality work in them and bring a certain level of professionalism to the cast. In general, the other supporting actors feel a little rough around the edges, but that aesthetic works well for the movie.

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Director Talbot does a tremendous job of bringing what could have been a maudlin and middling story to life with a dazzling emotional and dramatic vitality. The movie is beautifully shot as Talbot and cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra do an outstanding job framing their shots and even throw in some delicious 70’s, throw-back, long shot zooms. I loved those shots as they not only gave the film a distinct look and feel but were also imbued with a much deeper, archetypal meaning.

Talbot’s direction reminded me a little bit, just a little, of Spike Lee, in that he masterfully uses music, particularly jazz and/or classical, to build both dramatic and narrative momentum. Also like Lee, he populates his story with eccentrics who never fall into stereotype or caricature, no easy feat. Unlike Lee, and to his credit, Talbot wholeheartedly embraces a narrative complexity and subtlety that forces introspection rather than accusation, and is not afraid to tell the Truth even when the Truth hurts.

Even though the director Joe Talbot is white, the story is told exclusively from a black man’s perspective. What I found intriguing about this is that Talbot establishes this fact from the opening shot and makes clear that white people are aliens…literally…as they look like astronauts walking on a distant planet. What is so refreshing about Talbot’s approach is that he keeps white people as “alien” throughout…they are, ultimately, truly unknowable to black people. Of course the reverse is true as well, but in this movie we only see the black perspective and it was refreshing because it forced all of the issues and responsibilities back onto black characters. There are no one dimensional, white villains to blame or scapegoat (unlike, for instance, in some of Spike Lee’s films, or in last year’s If Beale Street Could Talk).

In conclusion, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a gorgeous film that never takes any short cuts and never fails to challenge, captivate and illuminate. This is a smart, original, unique and extremely well made film that I highly recommend you take the time and effort to go see in the theatre.

©2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 2.75 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. It isn’t awful, but unless you are an avid Godzilla and monster movie fan like me, there is really no need to make the effort to see this one in the theatre.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty and written by Dougherty and Zach Shields, is the story of the Russell family, Mark, Emma and Madison, as they come to grips with their grief and with famed monster Godzilla. The film stars Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown as Mark, Emma and Madison respectively, with supporting turns from a cavalcade of actors such as Ziyi Zhang, Ken Watanabe, Charles Dance, Sally Hawkins, Bradley Whitford and O’Shea Jackson, to name just a few. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is the 35th film in the Godzilla franchise and is the third film in Legendary Entertainment’s Monsterverse (Godzilla 2014, Kong: Skull Island 2017).

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As I have stated before, I am a confirmed Godzilla fan. As a kid growing up, as all the other kids were going crazy for Star Wars…I was obsessed with Godzilla and Planet of the Apes. During my childhood, if on a Saturday one of the local UHF channels just happened to be showing a Godzilla movie, it felt like Christmas. As a kid I also maintained a treasure trove of Godzilla toys and that compulsion has stayed with me well into adulthood. As a young and eligible bachelor living the high life in Brooklyn in the 90’s and 00’s, I had a circular table in my living room that was covered with Godzilla action figures which I proudly dubbed “Monster Island”. As you can imagine it was a huge attraction that brought many ladies into my lair and acted as a powerful aphrodisiac upon them. Nothing gets panties to drop quicker than a prominent display of Godzilla figurines.

It was during this time that Hollywood ventured into the Godzilla waters with Roland Emmerich’s accurately titled Godzilla (1998). Being the idiot fan that I am I rushed out to see this Godzilla reboot as fast as I could. The film, which I’ve since re-named Ferris Bueller’s Godzilla because it starred Matthew Broderick of all godforsaken people, was atrociously bad.

It took another 16 years, but Hollywood got back in the Godzilla business with 2014’s also aptly titled, Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards. Once again I rushed out to theatres to see my favorite monster and once again I left the theatre deflated after suffering through a truly terrible monster movie.

For further proof of my Godzilla nerd-dom bona fides, one need look no further than the fact that I actually wrote a very controversial and polarizing piece of Godzilla fan fiction and posted it to this website to coincide with the release of Godzilla (2014). This piece was so culturally radioactive it was met with an avalanche derision and scorn, up to and including death threats.

In 2016, much to my relief the Japanese studio and originator of the Godzilla franchise, Toho, released Shin Godzilla. I am such a fan of Godzilla (and Toho), that I actually waited in line early on a Sunday morning outside the Royal Laemmle Theatre to get tickets to see it. Thankfully, this was an enjoyable Godzilla movie experience.

In terms of the recent Hollywood Godzilla franchise, the 2014 Godzilla was the first film in Legendary Entertainment’s Monsterverse, and it definitely got that franchise off on the wrong foot. It was followed by Kong: Skull Island, starring the dead-eyed and empty-headed Brie Larson, which was so awful it made my teeth hurt. Kong: Skull Island was so bad it did the impossible, it made Godzilla (2014) look like Citizen Kane in comparison. Which brings us to the most recent film in the Legendary Monsterverse…Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

After my checkered Godzilla movie-going past, you might have thought I'd be hesitant to rush out and see Godzilla: King of the Monsters, well…you greatly over-estimate my intelligence. While I certainly did not have high expectations, in fact, my expectations were incredibly low, that didn’t stop me from going to see the very first showing of the film on opening day…which ended up being a 4 pm show on Thursday afternoon.

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My basic takeaway from King of the Monsters is this…it isn’t good…but with that said I also must admit… it could have been a hell of a lot worse. The biggest problem with the Hollywood Godzilla movies is that they use Godzilla as a prop for human drama as opposed to using humans as a prop for Godzilla drama. These movies spend so much time trying to get us to care about stupid people doing stupid things instead of just giving us what we came to see…Godzilla. I mean, Godzilla’s name isn’t above the title…IT IS THE TITLE.

To King of the Monsters credit, it does give us much more Godzilla than its predecessor did…but that isn’t exactly a high bar as Godzilla (2014) had so little Godzilla it should have been titled Waiting for Godzilla. Why studios need to stick to the usual formula of spending time trying to get audiences attached to second rate actors like Kyle Chandler or Vera Formiga is beyond me. You can show them, and spend a wee bit of time developing them, but then just leave them to try and survive the ultimate god encounter…namely…Godzilla.

King of the Monsters goes through the motions of trying to be a real drama, and uses certain cliched narrative devices…over and over and over and over again…in an effort to give deeper meaning to the monster festivities, but this all rings monotonous and hollow. It is like the film gets stuck in a plot loop and can’t get out of it so it simply repeats the same dramatic pattern every half hour except with different characters.

The cast are all fine I guess. I mean, I totally get how difficult it is to act in such an absurd movie with such terrible dialogue, so I cut the cast excessive amounts of slack. That said…the ever-awful Bradley Whitford does his very best to ruin the movie all by himself. Whitford is so repellent a screen presence he needs to be thrown into a volcano and sacrificed to Rodan for the good of all humanity.

On the bright side, 15 year old Millie Bobbie Brown is a really good actress. Brown has hit it big after her captivating work on Netflix’s break out hit Stranger Things. Brown’s greatest asset is that she is alive on screen and pulsates with a palpable humanity. She is also very beautiful, and I have to admit I find myself very concerned for her well-being, as Hollywood is a tough town for anyone, nevermind young people, and it is riddled with predators who use their power to prey upon the young and the weak. It is disconcerting to see Brown being “sexxed-up” by the industry and her handlers, and I only hope she can keep her wits about her as success can be very disorienting at such a young age.

Another plus is seeing Ziyi Zhang in a prominent supporting role. Zhang, who you may remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a beguiling beauty and formidable actress and it is a shame she has been missing from American cinema for so long.

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As for the monsters…well…the results are mixed. Godzilla looks great, really great, and we do get to see more of him and his rampages than we did in Godzilla (2014), but not enough of him. The other monsters, King Ghidorah, Rodan and Mothra are all just ok. I actually thought Ghidorah was pretty underwhelming visually especially compared to the dragons on Game of Thrones, which surprised me as you’d expect a feature film to have better effects than a tv show. Rodan also felt a bit off visually and that was a disappointment as he has historically been a good foil for Godzilla.

Mothra makes an appearance and is also not the most captivating visual presence. To be fair though, I have never liked Mothra at all. I always thought it was moronic to have a moth be this powerful being…I mean…it is a fucking moth for goodness sake.

The visuals of King of the Monsters are, much like its predecessor, decidedly dark, although this time around there is a higher level of clarity and coherence with the cinematography. We do get to see some clear shots of Godzilla and have a better idea of what is happening during his big fights, but I could use a hell of a lot more of it.

There are a few notable shots in the movie as well…including the usual iconic posing from Godzilla himself. There is one gorgeous shot of Ghidorah that is bursting with symbolic and thematic power, where Ghidorah spreads his wings atop a mountain with a cross in the foreground, that is really well executed. But then the impact of that shot was diluted when the filmmakers made the curious decision to literally show it about four more times.

The plot of King of the Monsters is riddled with illogic and inconsistencies and makes little to no sense. The movie also has little sense of time and space which can make it somewhat dizzying affair. The reality is that the film needlessly tries to explain everything and by doing so just confuses things even more.

In conclusion, if you love Godzilla movies you will find this one to be passable but not particularly great. If you are lukewarm on Godzilla movies and are looking for some mindless fun…stay away from this one as it is a little too mindless and a little short on fun. At the end of the day, Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t good enough to do anything more than preach to the most adamant of the Kaiju faithful.

©2019

Shadow: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A wonderfully made, visually stunning and dramatically and psychologically satisfying Chinese action film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Shadow, directed by iconic Chinese film maker Zhang Yimou, is the story of Jingzhou who is trained from a young age to be a double/shadow for military leader Ziyu. The film stars Deng Chao in a dual role as Jingzhou and Commander Ziyu, with supporting turns from Sun Li and Zheng Kai.

Shadow is best described as a Wuxia film, which is a genre of Chinese fantasy/fiction that revolves around “martial heroes” in a world of magical realism. Notable examples of Wuxia films are Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero and House of Flying Daggers by the same director as Shadow, Zhang Yimou.

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Yimou, who is one of the great directors of his generation, has a flair for unique fight choreography and paints his films with a striking palette and dramatic visuals. In Shadow, Yimou and cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding use a muted grey, black and white as the dominant color scheme but the film’s visuals crackle with a stunning intensity. The film is beautifully shot, highlighted by Xiaoding’s gorgeous framing (just look at the poster above) and use of a crisp and clear contrast between the blacks and the whites, the shadow and the light. Yimou and Xiaoding’s masterful use of contrast creates a visual clarity and coherence that is a joy to behold.

Shadow is a psychologically and dramatically rich story that deeply mines the Jungian concepts of the shadow. The most obvious example of this is that Chao plays both Jing and Ziyi, who are essentially the same entity with two different elements of its psyche projected into the outer world, each vying for control. Jing “the shadow”, must be identical to Ziyi, and in a delicious bit of Jungian symbolism, must have the identical “wound” as Ziyi. Ziyi in turn must integrate his “shadow” in order to make himself whole again, or face the consequences of being overcome by his psychological shadow.

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The shadow is a complex and dramatically potent psychological premise used to great effect by other film makers from the East, most notably Japanese master Akira Kurosawa in the terrific film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior). Like Shadow, Kagemusha also effectively used a single actor (the great Tatsuya Nakadai) to play both the role of the man of power and his shadow. Yimou dives even deeper into Jungian shadow psychology than Kurosawa though by emphasizing the anima (the feminine) and the imperative to also integrate that feminine power in order to become whole.

The ying and yang and wholeness are dominant themes throughout the movie (again look at the poster above) and Yimou emphasizes that battle/balance between the opposites not only visually with the black versus white color scheme, but dramatically with opposing masculine roles and opposing feminine roles. Just as Ziyi has Jing as his literal shadow (and vice versa), Ziyi’s wife, Xiao Ai has a symbolic opposite/shadow in Princess Qingping. That sort of balance in the narrative makes the film dramatically and subconciously very satisfying even while it maintains a pronounced assault and challenge upon our storytelling expectations.

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Wholeness is also represented in numerous ways in the film, most notably by the umbrella. A circle is the symbol for wholeness and in Shadow, Jing integrates his masculine and feminine sides by using a circle, an umbrella, as a weapon not only of defense but of offense. Jing’s learning the use of the umbrella is an integration dance between the masculine and the feminine. The use of the umbrella is not only psychologically resonant but is visually striking as well.

The cast all do solid work with Deng Chao in his dual role and Sun Li as Ziyi’s wife being the most notable. Chao is really remarkable as both men and it is easy to forget the same actor is playing both roles. Sun Li’s work is incredibly layered and she brings a palpable humanity and fragility to the role that profoundly accentuates the drama.

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The fight sequences are all so unique, original and compelling that they are a wonder to behold. Since The Matrix and Crouching Tiger became such big hits twenty years ago, slow motion martial arts moves have become passe, but Yimou fantastically turns everything on its head in Shadow and creates vibrant and vivid fights that are gloriously choreographed and cinematically mesmerizing. Yimou also wisely uses water and rain to further visually enhance the fight sequences.

While Shadow can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you go in unaware of the plot, once it hits its stride it is truly fantastic. I loved the film because it is such a dramatically, psychologically and cinematically rich example of the magical realism of Wuxia in action. If you are a fan of Wuxia or Yimou, rush out and see this movie in the theatres immediately. If you are less a Wuxia enthusiast, but enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Shadow may be a little tougher to penetrate because it isn’t as easily digestible or romantically sweeping as Ang Lee’s epic, but it is equally beautiful to look at. But with all that said, even if you are on the fence about going to see Shadow, why not give it a shot….the shadow you save might just be your own.

©2019

Game of Thrones: The Battle of Winterfell and the Fog of War

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****WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES EPISODE THE LONG NIGHT (SEASON 8 EPISODE 3)****

Last Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones (Season 8 Episode 3), titled The Long Night, was the climactic battle between the the Starks and their allies against the Night King and his army of undead wights. The Battle of Winterfell, as it has been dubbed, is thought to be the penultimate clash on the iconic program, with only the fight between the Stark/Targaryen forces against Cersei Lannister and her army in Kings Landing remaining.

The Long Night was a strange episode as the Battle of Winterfell was built up for years as a cataclysmic clash between the forces of good and evil, literally life and death, but the show uncharacteristically deviated from its long standing thematic and narrative traditions by limiting the amount of carnage upon the main characters of the show.

Game of Thrones made its name by flouting Hollywood conventions and sacrificing its lead characters on the altar of great story telling. Ned Stark lost his head so that Game of Thrones could be taken seriously, and the Red Wedding solidified the shows commitment to leading character carnage…but in The Long Night, way too many characters survived the apocalyptic battle. There is no way that Lady Mormont, Jorah Mormont (bad night for House Mormont!), Beric and Theon Greyjoy should be the only notable characters to go down in the Battle of Winterfell.

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How did Davos Seaworth, Brianne of Tarth, Tormund, Varys, Missandei, Grey Worm and Podrick not die? I understand why they’d want to save Jon Snow Daenerys, Tyrion, Jaime, Sansa, Arya and Bran…but I don’t get why secondary characters weren’t slaughtered en masse. And even the ones who did die went in very Hollywood ways, with Lady Mormont’s action hero death while killing a zombie giant the most dubious. And while we are at it, Arya’s killing of the Night King was cool and all, but not totally in keeping with the show’s grounding in its established reality. I mean, how did Arya jump over all these people to get to the Night King? And if Game of Thrones is going all Hollywood, why not have Arya die while killing the Night King, at least then it feels somewhat in keeping with the shows themes?

Narrative choices aside, the biggest issue people are having with The Long Night is the cinematography of Fabian Wagner and director Miguel Sapochik, with many complaints that the show was much too dark and too visually muddled. I happen to agree with those complaints and thought it would be a worthy topic to briefly examine.

Game of Thrones has done an exceptional job of filming “medieval” combat over the years and so I was surprised to see them flail about on The Long Night. The mistake that the creators made was to try and convey the “fog of war”, the confusion and disorientation that can accompany combat, by literally creating a white/blue snow fog to simply obfuscating visual clarity. This sort of approach is an error that many make and it never fails to fail.

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To be fair, the episode did have some bright cinematographic moments though, the lighting of the Dothraki swords and their charge into the darkness being one of them. But then the visuals went down hill when the White Walkers conjured up a wind storm to conceal their movements and sow confusion. That is a great battle plan for the White Walkers to take Winterfell, but a bad one for tv viewers trying to watch the fight.

There may be two reason why Wagner and Sapochik may have made the decision to muddy the visual waters at Winterfell, the first being that they wanted viewers to experience the chaos and confusion of war, the second being that they wanted to save some money from their huge budgets by limiting the amount of special effects they had to use to cover the scope and scale of the enormous battle. Both reasons are legitimate but misguided. Regardles of why, the end result was that viewers didn’t feel like they were participants in the Battle of Winterfell, they felt like they were going blind.

It is a common mistake to conflate darkness with a lack of light, what darkness means in cinematic terms is a a sharp contrast between dark and light. In cinematic “darkness” viewers still have visual clarity but with a “lack of light”, contrast gets watered down and visual coherence evaporates.

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Clear and clean contrast between dark and light make for clear and coherent images that convey both narrative and thematic information. For example, go watch The Favourite (2018), and notice the exquisite use of candles in the voids of darkness. Those images propel the story and the sub-text by using ‘illumination’ (literally and figuratively) that marks a clear delineation between the dark and the light. In The Long Night, light and dark wash into each other, colors are non existent and the action all becomes a visually muddled, grey mess.

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Two films came out in 1998, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that showed visually interesting ways to convey the fog of war. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and its iconic Omaha Beach assault scene is a perfect example of how to maintain visual clarity while creating a sense of anxiety and confusion (the fog of war). Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski‘s camera dances amidst an understated and muted light from an amphibious vehicle, into the water, and up the zig-zag maze of the beach all while under assault from barely discernible machine gun nests. Kaminski’s camera picks up the textures of the muted colors and materials in each shot. Viewers are given a soldier’s eye view of the carnage of D-Day, and the camera movements and tangible textures help to convey the confusion of that assault, but the visuals were never unclear for more than a brief second or so. Kaminski’s camera shows us what is happening very precisely and distinctly and its handheld movements aided in creating tension and anxiety in viewers.

Later in the film Spielberg uses a character looking through a telescopic sight to watch a battle to convey the fog of war and confusion of what is happening. This sequence is interesting because unlike in the Omaha Beach scene where viewers are active participants in the action, in the telescopic sight scene the character becomes an audience member as he tries to watch the action and discern what is happening. To Spielberg’s credit, this was a great way to create psychological reciprocity between the audience and the character.

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In The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick and his cinematographer John Toll use crisp and clean visuals with dynamic and rich colors to convey the fog of war. In the sequence where the Marines must make their way up a lush, green hillside to find and eliminate a machine gun nest, Malick and Toll give viewers a clear look at the surroundings, and just like the Marines, no clear shot of the machine gun nest. The rolling green of the hills are like a never ending sea and the machine gun nest a crocodile that only pokes its eyes and nose above the water line. The beauty of Malick and Toll’s visuals is in stark contrast to the physical and psychological mayhem unleashed with them.

Malick also gives clear focus to the nature which surrounds the battle, with Toll’s camera lingering long on a flower or an insect crawling on a leave of grass. Malick and Toll’s use of natural light and their ability to crisply define the colors, textures and contrasts of the setting make his fog of war confusion breathtakingly beautiful and utterly horrifying. (watch The Thin Red Line and notice that Malick’s camera picks up every little bump on Marine’s helmets…it creates an intimacy through texture that is one of Malick’s signature, understated styles.)

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The Long Night made the same error of visual incoherence that Clint Eastwood made in American Sniper, where Eastwood rolled in a sand storm in Iraq to convey the moral confusion of the Iraq war. That tactic did not visually work in American Sniper either as it created little more than a cloud of yellow dust just like The Long Night gave us a blueish white cloud of snow. In Eastwood’s case I can almost guarantee you that his creative decision to muddy things up was a result of budgetary concerns, as he is a notorious slave to budget. As for The Long Night’s decisions making…they do have large budgets, but hey also have at least one more big battle in this final season, so maybe they were cutting corners too.

Game of Thrones have made some of the greatest battle scenes in television history, as the Battle of the Bastards, The Spoils of War and Hardhome have shown, but with The Long Night they fell into more than just the fog of war trap, they failed to fully establish the geography of the scenes and battle ground and never established a coherent time line.

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As the Battle of Winterfell raged on, the locations of characters was never clearly elucidated, and so the lack of visual clarity became ever more heightened. I understand not wanting to give the “god shot”, an overhead view of things to show who is where and what is happening, but by failing to make the geography clear, the battle felt redundant and circular, and lacked specifics which could have heightened dramatic tension to a greater degree.

The timeline was as muddied as the visuals, as Arya ran through the castle trying to escape wights in an extended sequence, the battle raged outside. But when the camera returned to the battle outside, nothing had changed, and because viewers had no central character upon which to focus, the battle seemed aimless and incoherent.

Maybe the focus should have been on Samwell, and we viewers could have seen the battle through his perspective at times (like the telescopic scene in Saving Private Ryan), or we could shift perspective through a series of characters in order to get clarity on different areas of the fight. Maybe have Jaime, Arya, Jon Snow, Danerys and Theon lead us through the battle and we see what they see…so when Lady Mormont gets killed it is through Jaime’s perspective…things like that.

Look, I thoroughly enjoy Game of Thrones, I admire the show for its integrity and quality, and I was disappointed in parts of the episode the Long Night. The bottom line is this, Game of Thrones has given us eight glorious seasons of thrills, chills, carnage, nudity, incest, murder, dragons, zombies and palace intrigue, I only hope they can right the ship for the final three episodes after their visual and thematic missteps in the much discussed Battle of Winterfell.

©2019