Monday, May 22, 2017

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Shin Godzilla, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi's 2016 update of maybe the most famous monster franchise in the world, is the series' most overtly satirical entry. It's also arguably the funniest, and much like Gareth Edwards' 2014 installment has gone straight to my top 3 - almost just for its atomic breath, which is the best in the franchise (as well as the most destructive).

In 1954, Godzilla was a warning symbol come to giant, rubbery life. Given the source of its powers, the common reading of the King of the Monsters as a specifically anti-nuclear reaction is really just a result of the atomic bomb as the only weapon of mass destruction the world had seen (yet). The Dr Serizawa subplot - and specifically its resolution - paint a broader warning about the misuse of science for destructive ends. (It's hard to think of a non-violent application for the Oxygen Destroyer, but Serizawa spends much of the film debating whether he should share the technology even to save his country.)

It's harder to draw a specific parallel for the role of the big G in Shin Godzilla. Really, the film is an idictment of the sluggish reactions of Japanese bureaucracy to disasters. The film opens with an increasingly ridiculous series of meetings about forming committees to hold meetings about dealing with what is, initially, a minor incident. When Godzilla does eventually appear on-screen, its rapidly-mutating powers instantly outpace the govermnent - whose eventual response is far too little, much too late. Tokyo is devastated around them while bureaucrats wring their hands about departmental responsibility.

There's an argument to be made that this Godzilla represents a much more modern threat - its sudden, devastating emergence and subsequent disappearance, coupled with its evolving capabilities, bring to mind terrorism. The origin of the monster - a side-effect of short-sighted convenience - could be an analogue for any number of Western governments' ill-advised meddling which resulted in a devastating, agressive response.

But this doesn't really hold up in the slightly saggy back half of the film, which loses a lot of the forward momentum that builds during and in the aftermath of Godzilla's emergence. A race between American nuclear bombers and a scientific effort to freeze the monster by cooling its blood is oddly airless, as it's mostly carried out by mid-level aides call in political favours to delay the US military response.

At the end, very little is resolved. The frozen body of Godzilla still looms over Tokyo, with the American countdown merely paused. For all the politicians' ambitious for their own future political glory, Tokyo is left in the shadow of its imminent destruction, and ultimately the people of Japan don't seem to have much say in the matter.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ghost in the Shell preview

The opening four-and-a-half minutes of the upcoming Ghost in the Shell live-action movie was released on Twitter today, and… I'm not particularly impressed.

First, the good stuff: it looks pretty nice, if less grimy than the source material, and there are some great designs - the robo-spider geisha is incredible.

The rest feels very wide of the mark.

Broadly speaking, this clip follows a similar template to the first scene of Mamoru Oshii's 1995 anime film: the Major drops off a roof and engages is a brief firefight through a window. But the anime's opening four minutes set up a lot of stuff for the rest of the movie. the opening shot pans through layers of data illustrating wordlessly the extent to which everything is connected to the network; we're given hints of the rivalry between Public Security Sections 6 and 9; they namedrop Project 2501, the ultimate antagonist of the film; the surgical (and lethal) tactics of Section 9 get demonstrated; and while we're only really introduced to the Major there's also dialogue with Batou and Togusa that sketches out their working relationships.

By comparison, the live-action scene doesn't even seem to have a reason for the Major to be on that rooftop (one of a few things that leads me to believe that this isn't actually the very first scene in the film). While she begins the clip by announcing, "I'm on site," the presence of surveillance equipment seems to surprise her, and she's even unaware of who in the building might be the target. Where the live-action film has her responding to an unforeseen event, the anime makes the Major herself the event - which may seem like a small change, but moving them from active to reactive participants fundamentally alters the audience's perception of both Kusanagi and Section 9.

The relatively bloodless gunfight in the live-action film may be more visually inventive than its anime counterpart, but the number of cuts before the Major comes through the window - followed immediately by slow-motion wallrunning and a ponderous examination of the scene - makes the scene feel much longer.

Maybe the most surprising thing is the decision not to rip off maybe the most iconic shot of the anime's opening sequence: the first demonstration of the Major's thermoptic camouflage. On the one hand they've already lifted quite a lot of the original's key moments, but to draw the line at this feels weirdly restrained.

Everything I've seen of the live-action Ghost in the Shell puts me off it - the most egregious marketing error is the decision to use a san-serif font on the logo - but somehow I'm intrigued to see the final product, no matter how much I can already tell it's going to infuriate me.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Iron Fist

I cannot quite believe how big of a train wreck Iron Fist is.

Character motivations seem entirely fluid, changing scene to scene and even line to line. As if the white-man-as-martial-arts-messiah stuff wasn't bad enough, he listens exclusively to hiphop for some bonus cultural appropriation. The first episode might as well be called "Finn Jones harasses women". More scenes seem to take place in boring office space than Daredevil, which is set in a law firm. Its portrayal of mental healthcare is only slightly less enlightened than Terminator 2. I can't comment on the plot much yet because I'm only three episodes in but so far it's a garbage fire.

I want to like Colleen Wing more than I actually do. Hopefully she does something soon other than put up with Danny Rand's awful flirting and condescension. Never seen a sparring match as negging before, so that's new I guess?

But I'm determined to stick with it to the end. All the Marvel Netflix shows go to shit in the back half and I'm fascinated to see how much further off the rails this train can go.

Saturday, January 21, 2017



Warning: Symphogear spoilers. Not that it really matters, because this show transcends mere plot.

The very first thing Symphogear does is lie to its audience.

Symphogear, or to give the show its ridiculous full title Senki Zesshou Symphogear - Meteoroid-falling, burning, and disappear, then..., is best described as Macross meets magical girls; a number of young women are given ancient magical relics which enable them to use songs as armour and weapons to fight the alien threat Noise.

The show appears thematically dense on a surface level. All the terminology is music- or sound-related, and there's some strong imagery in the idea of humanity's heroic melodies defeating the monstrous Noise. But, like KILL la KILL, none of these apparently important references actually mean anything to the... well, calling it a story might be overly charitable.

The biggest problem Symphogear has is trying to decide what it wants to be. None of the masks it tries to wear really fit convincingly, but it's so earnest that I couldn't help but love it for trying so hard.

It has one of the most obvious yet most understated gay relationships in anime. It has characters who sing their feelings while battling each other. It has full-screen, comic book-style freeze-frames for special attacks. It has a story about the genetic reincarnation of an ancient priestess trying to rebuild the tower of Babel so she can destroy the God who lives in the moon. It's a mess of ideas that never quite work the way you feel the writers and animators intended (hoped?), but still somehow I can't help but cheer for it.

Symphogear's whole first series is building towards an ending that's promised by the opening scene of the first episode - a lie that I bought into. Having that scene constantly in mind, particularly as the finale approached, gave much of the story more dramatic heft than it might have otherwise had. It's constantly pulling off a balancing act between the ludicrous spectacle of the Symphogear battles and the difficulties Hibiki has keeping this new superhero work secret from her girlfriend Miku. And with the implication that Hibiki wasn't going to survive the series, I was more worried about whether they'd part on good terms than if they'd defeat Finé.

The second and third seasons have altogether different problems.

Season two, Senki Zesshou Symphogear G: In the Distance, That Day, When the Star Became Music..., decides to jettison all the character stuff that made the first interesting and just turn the Symphogear to eleven. It's total nonsense, spectacle for its own sake, with a terrorism subplot that follows three new Symphogear users who all but have "eventual hero" tattooed on their foreheads. Hibiki and Miku's relationship, the beating heart of the first series' plot, is all but ignored for two thirds of the running time. The transformation sequences from the first season - quick, incredibly cool and highly stylized - are replaced with more... traditional fanservice-based sequences.

The third (and so far final) season - Senki Zesshou Symphogear GX: Believe in Justice and Hold a Determination to Fist. - swings almost too far the other way, with a plot that's somehow both complicated and dumb at the same time, and much lower-key battles. The fanservice is turned up uncomfortably higher. The primary emotional storyline involves Hibiki trying to figure out what to do about her deadbeat father.

To call Symphogear a disaster would not be inaccurate, though I do think it would be unfair. The first season, inconsistent as it is, still has a strong core and some great ideas that a more polished show might not take risks with.

I couldn't recommend watching the whole saga (though with a fourth season constantly rumoured, you might do well to catch up!), but the first 13-episode series is definitely worth your time.

Unfortunate Events

I wonder if I'd like Netflix's A Series of Unfortunate Events more if it didn't remind me quite so much of Pushing Daisies.

They have more than a few things in common; from an omnipresent narrator to a visual style right on the border of the uncanny-valley, to gleeful descriptions of the weird and macabre events that occur and a peroccupation with alliteration and repetition. Daisies jacked the saturation up where Unfortunate Events turns it down, but the art design and camerawork in one will be familiar to fans of the other.

But it's not quite right.

Daisies' nameless narrator was off-screen, always ready to offer a brief comment or witty rebuttal; while Patrick Warburton's Lemony Snicket exists in much the same role, it takes time for him to move on or off screen, which almost kills the pacing. (His leisurely delivery doesn't help matters.)

Unfortunate Events also seems to struggle with tone - Neil Patrick Harris is unreservedly great as Count Olaf, but the constant switching between careful enunciation and off-the-cuff banter feels less like a deliberate directorial choice than a mistake. That no other character does this only highlights the disconnect.

I also find myself wondering how many of the distracting touches are references for book fans; Mr. Poe's cough adds little to the character, and most of the stuff with the theatre troupe feels like padding.

I'm willing to see how Unfortunate Events finds its feet - only two episodes in, there's a lot to like and the little I know about the series' structure has me intrigued. But the promise (warning?) of no happy ending is a bit offputting. It's hard to see how it could reach a satisfying conclusion with the Baudelaires failing to ever find happiness.

Of course, Pushing Daisies never had a classically romantic ending on the cards for Ned and Chuck. Then again, as TV executives are wont to do with Bryan Fuller shows, an ending was never really on the cards for them at all.