Film Review: Shin Godzilla

The people at Toho Studios ended their third run of Godzilla films (the Shinsei series) with the ludicrous 50th anniversary bash Godzilla: Final Wars. Deciding to take a break from the Godzilla series for a while, mainly due to declining public interest, any notions of returning to the franchise were probably put on the backburner once the American Legendary Studios started production on their own film. With the 2014 Godzilla revitalizing interest in Japan, a new film was put into production. It is a delight to see that Toho has brought back one of my favorite franchises. The American film was enjoyable and had some awesome moments, but attempts to hold back on showing Godzilla and focus on an uninteresting human made for a frustrating experience. Shin Godzilla is a reboot, with no connections to any of the other films. In fact, it is the first Toho Godzilla movie to not be in continuity with the 1954 original.

The movie has two directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, with the latter focusing more on the special effects end. Both also worked on the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I have never seen but now have a bit of interest in after seeing this movie. While the first Godzilla film was made as a response to the atomic bombs and some disastrous side effects of nuclear testing, this film is more interested in responding to the political and global reactions to the 3/11 earthquake and the Fukushima incident. The movie has a lot of political characters, and shows in-depth their discussions and response to the Godzilla threat. This is the part which may turn off American viewers. Though having little knowledge of how the Japanese government works, I personally was fascinated. Shin Godzilla acknowledges that the Japanese Self-Defense Force has never actually had to defend its shores, so this is their trial by fire. The Japanese characters make cynical, snide remarks about the UN and American foreign policy. But with all the boardroom meetings and discussions on geopolitics, I doubt that this is the type of movie you want to bring kids to, as there are lots of scenes of people talking in rooms or hallways. There seems to be aspects of satire to the political scenes, especially when the military is handicapped by an indecisive Prime Minister. The audience I saw it with actually chuckled at a lot of the lines.

One pleasing aspect is that the film involves the entire world. One of the problems with the Godzilla series has always been that the many world powers seem uninterested in the destructive behemoths assailing Japan. Sure, there were exceptions, such as the occasional American member of G-Force in the 90s films, but otherwise it seemed that Japan was always on its own, while the military superpowers of America and Russia seemed too lazy to at least send an aerial strike or naval bombardment. Here the whole world is invested in what is happening, naturally scared of what Godzilla can do once he’s through with Japan. The Americans even send in a bomber strike in one scene after the Japanese SDF fails. A warning to American viewers, there are some critical comments made towards the United States, especially in how it tries to intervene in Japanese affairs. One of the messages of the movie is that Japan needs to lead the fight in her own battles, instead of relying on America or the UN to bail them out. As one character says, must Japan always be “post-war”, a glorified American protectorate?

There are dozens of characters, so very few get fleshed out. Almost all their dialogue is on the current political climate or Godzilla. Most are just the various government officials, but there is an independent group led by the male lead that features some quirky people. The male lead is the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi, played by Hiroki Hasegawa (I had to look up his actual position, since it was difficult to keep up with all the roles). He is a competent character frustrated with the red tape and bureaucracy, so he forms his own team to find a way to defeat Godzilla. He doesn’t show too much emotion, but it’s effective when he does. American viewers will take a special interest in the US ambassador, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). She’s a Japanese-American diplomat amusingly played by a Japanese actress who had to learn English for her role. Seeing someone have trouble saying English lines while proclaiming her ambition to be president is certainly bizarre, and makes one realize how American actors probably sound weird when they speak non-English languages. Her character arc sees her torn between serving the United States and trying to help her grandmother’s country avert further disaster. In general the characters actually affect the plot. That’s another recurring problem with a good chunk of the Godzilla movies, where humans will go through personal drama or learn things about the monsters, but only a handful of them will actually affect the outcome in any meaningful way (except accidentally reviving or creating Godzilla’s opponent of the week).

This is a very different Godzilla film. It certainly feels larger, has a much more serious tone, and shows much deeper thinking in its plot. But nothing feels more different that the main attraction: Godzilla. Anno and Higuchi did something that’s actually hard to do with Godzilla: make him creepy. As can be seen from the trailers, this Godzilla looks nightmarish and zombielike, not a giant dinosaur who can looks like a natural animal and can be quite loveable.  He certainly looks like the unethical creation of mankind’s folly. His origin is related to nuclear energy, but he is something different than what we’re used to. I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but this Godzilla is full of surprises that come out of left-field. His first appearance is sure to bewilder viewers, and his abilities are altered in some rather unique ways. I think Godzilla didn’t really have too much screentime, like in the 2014 American version, but here the scenes don’t cut away when something interesting is about to happen. The camera stays focused on Godzilla when he does something. Also of note is that this is the biggest Godzilla. After the Americans expanded his height to 355 feet, Toho felt the need to one-up them. This Godzilla is 387 feet tall.

Shin Godzilla is a great reboot, full of interesting themes, human characters that feel integral to the plot, and a bold and different take on the big G himself. Rewatchability might be difficult, because of all the political scenes and the action’s reliance on unexpected occurrences. This is certainly one of the best Godzilla films in terms of actually being a well-made movie, not merely for its entertainment value like most films in the franchise. One concern I have is how the sequels will play out. Godzilla is so monstrous and powerful in this film that I don’t see how any other monster could be a credible threat, and I don’t think he will be kept as the primary antagonist.

Rating: 8/10

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Film Review: X-Men Apocalypse

Release Date: May 27, 2016

Running Time: 144 Minutes

X-Men: Apocalypse is the latest offering in the reinvigorated X-Men franchise. The plot centers around the threat of the world’s first mutant, the ancient Apocalypse. Trapped within a pyramid due to his tyranny, he is reawakened in the 1980s, where he is disgusted to learn that humans, not mutants, are in charge. He also has a god complex, brought about by his ability to collect new mutant powers by transferring his consciousness into other bodies. Standing in his way are the X-Men, but there are also disgruntled mutants that serve him as the Four Horsemen.

This is a movie that is somehow good and messy at the same time. Almost all the elements, from individual scenes to characters to subplots, are good to great. It’s just that there is so much of them that they fail to form a cohesive whole. There’s one particular part of the movie that gets off on a tangent just to provide unneeded fan service. What will make it difficult for casual moviegoers is that it builds on and references over fifteen years of X-Men movies.

Since the timeline for the franchise was rewritten in Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer is given carte blanche to do whatever he wants with the story. For example, Nightcrawler, who was not on the team in the first X-Men film, is now available as one of the first major students of the Xavier mutant school. Actually, one of the film’s greatest sins is giving us interesting and well-acted teen X-Men and not giving them more screentime. The only one who gets significant development is Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and even then the conclusion of her little arc is rather rushed and unnecessary.

Apocalypse has his own followers, the Four Horsemen, but half of them end up being mere henchmen. Angel (Ben Hardy) is just there to fly around and attack X-Men. Likewise Psylocke (Olivia Munn), is just there to look hot and act cool, forming an energy katana and flipping around. Storm, wonderfully played by Alexandra Shipp, is the standout of the new “villains”, playing a streetwise, yet naïve thief who seems a little too easy for Apocalypse to recruit.

The real standouts are Apocalypse and Magneto and Professor X. Apocalypse is played by Oscar Isaac, who I’ve only seen in a couple other movies. But I can tell the guy has amazing acting range, easily convincing you that he is in his role (though it helps he was under facial hair in Robin Hood and make-up in this one). His Apocalypse is a bit clichéd, just your typical super-powered villain, but somehow Isaac gives him incredible presence and makes him one of the most memorable villains to grace a comic book film. I found it surprisingly easy to understand his powers, something I had trouble with in the comics. Many people have been complaining about how he won’t use matter manipulation to simply disintegrate the X-Men, but you’ll notice that he can only use this power on non-living tissue, so it’s not an oversight.

Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy return as Magneto and Professor X and as usual kill it. Magneto starts the film with a new life, having put his super-villainy behind him, but thanks to circumstances he winds up as part of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. His story arc is good, but it’s one of many subplots that clutter the film. But without his subplot his motivation for joining Apocalypse would be poor, so it just has to be in there. After spending Days of Future Past in a depressed state, Professor X is back to being the optimist. He does struggle with wanting to keep his school just a school, when threats demand that he form a little superhero army.

There are quite a few characters I didn’t mention, because there are a ton, but one I have to single out is Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique. Lawrence, who’s a fantastic actress, puts on a shockingly average performance, scowling her way through the whole movie unless she really, really has to display some emotion. What really bugs me is that since she’s such a gung ho mutant rights activist, how come she’s always concealing her blue-skinned, yellow-eyed appearance? I’m guessing either Lawrence used her political pull to spend less time in the extensive makeup or the producers wanted to have her real face to better market the film to her fans. Regardless of the reason, Singer does have her give a reason for hiding her natural mutant appearance, but it’s pretty lame.

This movie is two and a half hours long. I didn’t feel that it dragged on too much, but I can see moviegoers getting tired with it. There’s really not much in the way of action scenes until the last act. Singer is instead focused on character development and drama, though ironically because there are so many characters many of them still wind up underdeveloped. I also was a little disappointed that they didn’t incorporate aspects of the 80s into the storyline that much, as they incorporated the 60s and 70s into the last two films (Cuban missile crisis in First Class and Nixon in Days of Future Past). Maybe Apocalypse and the Four Horsemen could have formed an eighties rock band, since that does sound like an awesome band name.

When the action does take over, it’s pretty cool. For a while it’s just the two teams sparring, but once it’s everyone against Apocalypse, things get pretty awesome. You get the sense that Apocalypse is practically a god, shrugging off energy attacks, recovering from even the greatest of blows, and mentally battling Professor X while at the same time physically thrashing over half a dozen characters. I love the opening as well. It’s a bit long, but I’m a sucker for prologues set in the past (which was how the very first X-Men movie opened, no less), This particular one takes place in Ancient Egypt, a setting which guarantees cool visuals.

X-Men: Apocalypse has a bit too much in it, and there are a couple elements that could have been cut out or trimmed down to better develop student characters like Jean Grey and Cyclops, but almost everything in it is still good. I feel a might be generous with my rating, but I didn’t feel bored and only got frustrated once.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Captain America Civil War

Release Date: May 6, 2016

Running Time: 147 Minutes

Captain America: Civil War, aka Avengers 2.5 (and having more focus on the Winter Soldier than the film of the same name), couldn’t have come at a more ironic time, just over a month after another hero vs. hero affair in Batman vs. Superman. In almost all the areas where that dour affair failed this latest installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe succeeded in spades. Character motivations, humor, pacing, you name it.

I can’t say too much about the plot without spoiling a lot. Near the beginning, an Avengers mission ends in a tragic accident which kills several civilians. This, along with the collateral damage and loss of life in the previous movies, lead the UN to come up with the Sokovia Accords, which will reign in the superheroes and make them answerable to the world’s governments. Feeling responsible, especially for the creation of Ultron and the subsequent destruction of Sokovia in Age of Ultron, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees with this. Captain America (Chris Evans), however, believes the Avengers should be privately run, as the UN is governed by people with varying and often unscrupulous agendas. Complicating things is Captain America’s attempts to find and protect old friend “Bucky” Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), attempts which thanks to several twists and turns lead to further divisions among the superheroes. The rest of the Avengers, along with a couple other heroes, pick sides as well, leading to the Civil War in the title.

The directors, the Russo Brothers, do a tremendous job showing the pros and cons of both sides. You won’t find yourself actively cheering one side and booing the other, even if you agree with one more. In fact, the final battle is intense and a little heartbreaking, with none of the usual quips and one-liners to be found. I also have to say that this movie barely follows the comic book event of the same name, which is fine with me. The comics version turned several superheroes into jerks, was unbalanced in its viewpoints, and also played a large role in the infamous Spider-Man: One More Day (I won’t explain that disaster here. Check it out yourself if you’re curious).

One potentially major flaw of the film is actually its greatest strength, and that is the presence of so many pre-established characters, building off of previous movies where they were introduced and developed. As with the Avengers series proper, seeing all of these characters get together and mix it up, many for the first time, creates a fun, nerdtastic experience. In order to totally enjoy this film, you have to see all of the previous Avengers, Captain America, and Iron movies, as well as Ant-Man. But it’s totally worth it for the team vs. team battle, which was an utter delight.

While Civil War is in the Captain America series, it’s as much an Avengers movie, with Iron Man sharing roughly the same screentime as Cap. Many of the Avengers are better here than they were in Age of Ultron. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) in particular is much more likeable and interesting, while the Vision (Paul Bettany), who appeared in the last act of his first film, now gets some character development. They even imply that the two might end up romantically linked as in the comics, though the films might keep it as a friendship. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johanson) don’t get much more development, but it’s nice to have them there I actually found myself most excited to see Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) there, which surprised me. Just the way he behaves in the battle is so entertaining and funny. The Winter Soldier’s background is shown a little more, and thanks to years of brainwashing and being forced to commit villainous acts, it’s uncertain when he’ll snap and turn on the heroes, though he really wants to redeem himself. General Ross (William Hurt) finally returns after The Incredible Hulk, now the Secretary of State who wants to limit the actions of the Avengers.

This film also brings in two new superheroes, as well as a villain. The most talked-about debut was Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who Sony finally let Marvel Studios use. I have to say, Holland’s take on the character is pretty darn good. His Peter Parker is a little awkward and looks like the type of person who would be picked on in high school, but once he puts on the costume he’s a total ball of energy, throwing quips left and right, much to the chagrin of his teammates. The other new hero is Black Panther, aka Prince T’Challa of the fictional African country of Wakanda (Chadwick Boseman), who gets an origin of sorts (he already has the fighting abilities and costume of the Black Panther when he shows up). He’s sort of  stereotypical noble African prince, but like everyone else he’s pretty cool. He has a more serious vibe. I don’t think he makes any jokes at all. The villain is Helmut Zemo (the second Baron Zemo in the comics; Daniel Bruhl). All he shares with his comic book counterpart is the name and a dislike for superheroes. He doesn’t have a ton of scenes, but he proves to be more interesting and developed than most other Marvel movie villains by the end. To say anything else about him would be a big spoiler.

There are a few quibbles I have. They could have had more personal interaction between Captain America and Bucky Barnes. They seem to spend more time running and fighting when they’re together. The political issues of the titular Civil War get shunted to the background of the second half, as the focus is more on personal issues of revenge. It also bugged me that the Vision seemed to be nothing for large chunks of the team on team fight. What was he doing, being morose about the situation while he floated in the sky?

This is a great movie. I’m tempted to lower Batman vs. Superman’s rating after this, because it does the same things way better. The heroes have real motivations for fighting each other and don’t turn into murderous jerks in the process. The villain’s scheme and motivation makes sense. The movie goes by fast while Batman vs. Superman was a slog, and both were two and a half hours long! There’s more humor, but the Russo Brothers know when to scale it back and make things serious. Overall, Civil War is an amazing film. The Russo Brothers have produced gold twice in the MCU and now that they’re doing the Infinity War two-parter I’m super-excited (as if I wasn’t already!).

Rating: 9/10

Film Review: The Jungle Book

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Running Time: 105 Minutes

The latest live-action remake of animated Disney classics is The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Like the 1967 cartoon, it tells the story of Mowgli, a human boy raised by wolves who is being told he has to return to mankind for his own safety, but wants to stay in the jungle. Actually, it sort of isn’t live-action. Aside from Mowgli all of the characters are CGI and the jungle environment itself was created in a computer. Actual filming took place in a studio. However, by taking extensive photos and film of real environments and animals, the visual effects team has created a marvelously realistic and vibrant feast for the eyes.

This film is based more on the 1967 cartoon than Rudyard Kipling’s book. For example, King Louie never appeared in Kipling’s work and was actually created by Disney. Also, the characters’ behavior is more based on the cartoon as well. The story, however, is expanded upon and tied together more cohesively. The theme of man’s ability to bring forth fire plays a greater role, and Mowgli’s adventures are more serialized than a string of thinly connected episodes. There are also a few twists that keep the story fresh and less predictable for both those who read Kipling’s work and saw the original animated film.

The voice acting in this film is great. Ben Kingsley is perfect as the wise and awesome black panther Bagheera. Scarlett Johansen plays the large python Kaa, a choice that was initially controversial as this changed the gender of the character. Her one scene features a wonderfully ominous buildup that slowly reveals her enormous and terrifying form. Kaa is definitely creepier here than the comically inept side-villain of the original. Instead of swirling cartoon eyes, her hypnosis is conveyed by shimmering eyes. The role of the wolves is largely expanded. In the original film they appear in the beginning and are then left alone. Here they appear throughout the whole movie with Lupita Nyong’o voicing Mowgli’s adopted mother. There’s also Mowgli’s “brothers” some very cute wolf cubs.

Idris Elba does a fantastic job as Shere Khan. Shere Khan was a good villain in the animated feature, but here he’s absolutely terrifying and has much more screentime. His character motivation is altered. In both films he hates men and wants to kill Mowgli, but in the original he seemed to be doing more for the perverted sport of it, while here he has more of a vengeance angle going on.

The two highlights are Bill Murray as Baloo the bear and Christopher Walken as King Louie. Baloo doesn’t have singer Phil Harris’ rich voice like in the original, but Murray does about as good a job in his own way. Like in the original he’ll definitely get the most love form viewers. Christopher Walken of course is just naturally amazing, so having him voice the king of the primates, even singing “I Wanna Be Like You”, is awesome. It should be noted that instead of being an orangutan, he’s an extinct ape called a Gigantopithecus, and he’s really, really large, the largest character outside of the elephants. Between his size, the buildup to his appearance, and his behavior, he proves to be much more frightening the character’s first incarnation, who was a short and goofy “king of the swingers”.

Then of course there’s the sole human character, Mowgli. Surprisingly, despite being both a child actor and having to act in front of a blue screen while talking to animal puppets (as the other characters are CGI), Neel Sethi does a good job. The character of Mowgli is much improved from the 1967 version. Instead of an idiot child who walks headlong into trouble all the time and naively trusts every predator, he’s intelligent and isn’t too stupid to run away from a tiger. He’s also a bit of a genius, as he’s able to fashion many tools to help him keep up with the animals. Really, our brains and dexterous hands are the only things that keep us above other animals and I love how the recent Jungle Book incorporates this fact.

The Jungle Book is a great remake, far better than the original, which was fun but not one of Disney’s stronger offerings. It uses CGI correctly and has amazing voice acting. One complaint might be that it gets pretty intense and scary for a kid’s film, but you know what? Kids should be allowed to be scared. The old Disney cartoons of the 30s and 40s had some pretty frightening scenes and parents don’t complain about those. A more valid complaint might be that this film has the current Hollywood trend of taking old fairy tales and stories and making them “bigger” (think of Snow White and the Huntsman turning that tale into a sword-and-sorcery epic). But at least Shere Khan isn’t commanding an army of evil animals or there aren’t a bunch of humans attacking the jungle with guns and torches. This is one of those films that can be enjoyed by all ages and not just because older people will have nostalgia. It’s the original Jungle Book with enough twists and changes to keep it fresh and engrossing. Christopher Walken as a giant ape alone makes this worth seeing.

Final Rating: 8/10

Film Review: God’s Not Dead 2

Release Date: April 1, 2016

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Despite being a Christian, I’ve never really made an effort to watch Christian films (unless you count the sword-and-sandal epics from the 50s and 60s). I’ve seen Kirk Cameron’s cheesy Left Behind and End of the Spear, the latter which is actually a pretty great film covering a real-life incident involving missionaries trying to reach the Waodani tribe in South America. I’ve heard that Christian movies have a tendency to be rather preachy, only being accepted by Christians and not appealing at all to non-Christians. They also have such strict moral codes in being put together (no naughty words, violence, sexual content) that they end up looking like an alternate reality. After hearing so much criticism of Christian movies I decided to actually go see one with some fellow believers.

God’s Not Dead 2 is, as the title implies, the sequel to another movie, which came out just last year. The first film was a Christian student being harassed and then debating an Atheist philosophy professor played by Kevin Sorbo. I didn’t actually see it, but have read several summaries and seen a couple reviews with footage, so I was able to understand what some of the returning characters had gone through.

This time it’s a teacher in trouble. The very Christian-named high school teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) answers a Brooke’s (a student played by Hayley Orrantia) questions about similarities between Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. Since she quotes a passage from the Bible to further the comparisons, she gets in hot water with the school board, who believe she has used her classroom to proselytize. Refusing to claim she did anything wrong, she ends up in court.

Christian films are known for having poor acting. Thankfully, that problem is heavily alleviated here. Most of the characters from the first film are a little bland in their portrayals, but they actually got some good talent this time. Jesse Metcalfe is pretty likeable as Grace’s lawyer, Tom Endler, while famed singer Pat Boone is charming and funny as Grace’s grandfather Walter Wesley. The recently-deceased Fred Thompson has a pretty brief scene too as an elder pastor. But the best part of the movie is Ray Wise as an atheist ACLU prosecutor Peter Kane. Often having character actor roles in TV shows, Ray Wise is also known for his creepy, sinister smile. He really overdoes that smile as Peter Kane, at one point even evilly delighting in a pastor getting taken off the jury because he collapses. It ironically makes him the most delightful part the film.

But Wise’s acting is also part of a problem with this film. All of the Christians are portrayed as sweet people, while the atheists are just plain evil. Their two main facial expressions are mad glare and smug smirk. While there are doubtlessly atheists like that out there, they are a minority. I don’t think every atheist is constantly scheming about how he can destroy Christianity. This makes the movie very inaccessible to non-Christian viewers. I find it unlikely that any non-believer would find Christianity appealing when Christian filmmakers show him as a constantly irate villain who’s out to squash any Christianity he sees and take Duck Dynasty off the air (this franchise has a real obsession with that show). Unlike the first film, there’s at least an exception this time. Grace’s defense lawyer Tom Endler is a non-believer, but earnestly believes he is fighting for the rights of an innocent woman. Another positive change from the first film is in the subplots. Apparently the first movie was chock-full of subplots that had nothing to do with the main story, except that they all end up at a Newsboys concert at the end. In God’s Not Dead 2 there are a couple subplots which get a little tangential, but they all find a way to tie into the courtroom drama. I genuinely enjoyed one following a recently-concerted Chinese student who is visited and disowned by his atheist father. This is probably because it focuses on actual full-fledged persecution of Christians in China and other countries.

The courtroom drama itself is so-so. The case would have been thrown out quickly, since Grace did not proselytize at all. Sure, the parents of Brooke are the ones who make a big deal out of it, but I’m pretty sure the judge and the lawyers on both sides would dismiss it right off the bat. Some of the arguments of Tom Endler are pretty good, but I feel like he could have gone further to present a more convincing case. The most interesting part (besides Ray Wise’s acting) is when Endler tries to prove that Jesus is a historical figure, since this would make it appropriate for Grace to talk about him in a history class. They actually got the authors of Case for Christ (Lee Strobel) and Cold Case Christianity (J. Warner Wallace) to appear. They end up being the most compelling parts of the courtroom drama since they basically explain what their books are about and how they prove Jesus’ existence. I myself really want to read Cold Case sometime. Otherwise, the courtroom drama is full of atheist caricatures and its resolution is a bit of a cop-out.

God’s Not Dead 2 is an alright film, though it’s portrayal of atheists is troubling. It also exaggerates how Christians are treated in America. It states that their rights are constantly being trampled on by angry lawyers and school boards and occasionally this does happen (the film even references an actual event in Houston, Texas when pastors were almost forced to hand over their sermons for examination). But it’s so one-sided with little room for a gray area that it effectively can only be enjoyed by Christians. I hope the third film, which was teased after the end credits, will examine both sides of the issues of church and state more objectively, but I doubt that.

Final Rating: 4/10

Film Review: Batman vs. Superman, Dawn of Justice

Release Date: March 25, 2016

Running Time: 151 Minutes

Just as it looked like Superman would finally get a proper film franchise, one that would draw more villains and storylines from the comics instead of descending into comedic camp like the 80s’ series, Warner Brothers decided to fulfill one of the greatest dreams of comic book fans: a cinematic, on-screen Batman and Superman crossover, particularly one that would show them in a fight against each other. Superman would have to share his movie with Batman, who has really thrived on both the big and small screens as of late. However, upon its release it has met with severe critical backlash, though it will probably still make a killing at the box office (I and about fifty other people had to wait in line while the theater was emptied of the previous screening’s moviegoers). But are the poor reviews just the byproduct of snobby critics, or is this movie really a train wreck?

Sadly, it’s a case of the latter. Besides, critics have embraced plenty of superhero and other comic-based films in the past fifteen years. Batman vs. Superman is shockingly slow and needlessly dark. It throws in too many elements, as DC is trying to get a quick start to their own cinematic universe. It also seems to derive more from DC’s New 52 reboot, in which almost all of the 52 weekly comic book series are full of frowning, miserable superheroes in violent, depressing storylines. This works for Batman, but we don’t need to see Superman failing to crack one smile through an entire six-issue story arc or the Teen Titans being stuck in a contest where children kill each other.

One of the greatest flaws of Zack Snyder’s film, perhaps the worst aspect, is Superman himself. Henry Cavill is a fine actor, but his Superman is just not the shining beacon of hope that Superman should be. If you thought he spent too much time brooding in Man of Steel, wait till you see him frown his way through a two and a half hour movie, looking depressed. There’s even a montage of him doing heroic deeds, but Hans Zimmer’s score for the scene is dour and brooding, while Superman looks like he’s slowly dying from the strain of saving people. Another problem is that Batman himself is a pessimistic character. One of the things that makes his interactions with Superman and DC’s other more light-hearted heroes interesting is how his mistrust plays off against their idealistic optimism. Here they’re both frowning, scowling figures, so it looks like two mean-spirited jerks having a pissing contest instead of a clash of ideologies.

Superman is not even a main character. I felt no emotional development from him at all, aside from him being depressed about people not liking him. He disappears for long chunks of screentime while other characters talk about how horrible and dangerous he is. Superman’s supporting characters don’t fare much better. Jimmy Olsen finally gets introduced, only to have maybe one minute of screentime. Amy Adams’ Lois Lane has her own subplot about investigating an incident near the film’s beginning, but this proves unnecessary. Otherwise she’s just there to listen to the other characters monologue. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) was actually fairly funny and got to do a little more than he did in Man of Steel, so that’s something.

One of the most controversial casting choices was five foot nine Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. For some reason none of the movies have been able to capture the essence of comic book Lex Luthor. In the Christopher Reeves films he wasn’t a mad scientist, but a criminal obsessed with real estate. In Superman Returns Bryan Singer was so taken in by nostalgia that he used this version of the character, who once again was out to create real estate. Eisenberg’s version is based off of the evil businessman Luthor, one of the greatest villains in comic books history, but for some reason he’s goofy and squirrelly, more akin to Jim Carrey’s Riddler. He doesn’t even have the benefit of a clear motivation. Does he genuinely want to protect the world from the potentially dangerous Superman and other metahumans, does he want to rule the world himself, or does he actually want to increase metahuman activity? By the film’s end, after spending over two hours lecturing on the dangers of Superman, he’s bragging about how he has sent a signal to alien invaders, quite the contradiction.

But there is a bright spot among the characters and that is Ben Affleck’s Batman. His Batman is an older, jaded figure, having operated as a costumed vigilante for twenty years. There’s even evidence of battles with the Joker and Riddler as easter eggs.  Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, opens the film witnessing Superman’s needlessly destructive battle with Zod, addressing the Man of Steel complaints of fans and critics. Naturally, he thinks the collateral damage of Superman is too great, and also that if he ever turns against humanity there’s little hope of stopping him. He thus has the clearest motivation and most development, perhaps the only development, of any of the characters. He’s the one that felt like an actual main character.

Most of the Batman scenes are quite good. He does actual detective work, something that Christian Bale’s version would have other characters do for him, and he has an amazing fight scene that looks like it came straight out of the Arkham video game series. His methods are shockingly violent when taking his comic book’s ‘no-kill” rule into account. He flat out machine guns and wrecks the cars he’s chasing and brands criminals with the bat logo. But at least he never claims that he won’t kill anyone. In Batman Begins, Christian Bale’s version vows he will never become an executioner and then ends up blowing up a palace full on ninjas. I really look forward to a solo outing starring Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader. I also thought Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and butler Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) were pretty cool. Wonder Woman doesn’t have much screentime, usually showing up to have a little verbal spar with Bruce Wayne. I’m definitely excited for her movie. Iron’s Alfred is a little more sarcastic than previous interpretations, but alongside Perry White he provides most of the genuine humor in the movie.

One last thing to address is the fight scenes. This time around there’s still a lot of destruction, but it’s much more contained. The only questionable scene in this regard is the location of the final battle, an industrial area which is closed down for the night, meaning no civilians are around. Knowing people who work these kinds of jobs and having a little experience myself, I can tell you in real life they would be running many of those places 24/7.

There’s surprisingly little action, so little that the film’s first half can drag at points, not what you want for something titled Batman vs. Superman. Things do pick up in the last hour. The one that audiences were looking forward to was the actual fight between Batman and Superman. I have to say it’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near as good as the one in Dark Knight Returns, the main inspiration for this movie really. Batman struggles to face Superman’s power for the first couple minutes. Once he throws kryptonite at him, however, it turns into a really average slugfest with a questionable conclusion. The final battle is not exactly flawless, but it’s more interesting. This is kind of a spoiler, but the trailers themselves already did that. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, DC’s Trinity, faces off against Doomsday. Doomsday himself is unfortunately based off of the New 52 version, meaning he absorbs all energy directed at him and is constantly mutating, rather than being the pummeling terror he debuted as. He starts off looking like a cave troll from Lord of the Rings and despite gaining the spikes from the comic book version he still looks kind of stupid.

Overall, Batman vs. Superman is a shockingly poor movie. It’s overstuffed, convoluted, and imbued with a dark, depressing aura. DC shows that its desperate to catch up with Marvel’s cinematic universe, cramming in too much buildup for future movies. Snyder and the other creators take too much inspiration from the New 52, DC’s current crop of comics that think it’s edgy to be dark and broody. If you have a large interest in DC’s characters, this is worth seeing once. Ben Affleck’s Batman is great, Wonder Woman is neat for when she’s there, and some of the action is cool, but overall this is one big mess. I’m concerned for the DC Cinematic Universe. I’m sure at least a couple of the movies will be good at least, but if they insist on following the grimdark style moviegoers are eventually going to be fed up. Marvel’s fun, light-hearted fare with clear-cut heroes is succeeding for a reason.

Rating: 4/10

Film Review: Battle of Okinawa

The film industry is always going back to World War II, and with good reason. Such a large, well-documented conflict that affected every area of human life is full of almost limitless stories to bring to the big screen. Japan, however, has never really delved too deeply into the subject on screen. Japan in general has controversially displayed selective amnesia when it comes to this period in history, in large part due to the horrible atrocities its militaristic government orchestrated. Thus, post-war cinema in that nation usually looks to feudal era for historic inspiration. But for a few years in the 60s and 70s, several directors were willing to tackle the subject.

Curious to check out a Japanese WWII film, I got my hands on a DVD for the simply titled Battle of Okinawa, based on the last great battle of WWII. Directed by war veteran Kihachi Okamoto, it’s practically a docudrama, with much of its information culled from the memoirs of Chief of Staff Hiromichi Yahara (Tatsuya Nakadai), a rare case of a high-ranking officer who did not commit ritual suicide when faced with defeat.

One thing I was wondering was what stance Okamoto’s Battle of Okinawa would take. Would it be pro-Japanese propaganda, or perhaps a condemnation of wartime behavior? What would American soldiers be portrayed like from the other side?

Aside from inspiring Okinawan civilians to commit mass suicides, atrocities are never mentioned. As someone with a good knowledge of the Pacific War, I found it disturbing realizing that most if not all of the military characters would have been involved in rape, murder, enslavement, and the like. If there is any criticism, it is leveled at high command for failing to properly support its army, mismanaging resources, and treating its soldiers as mere cannon fodder. The film also does not portray aggressive-minded tactics in a positive light, and in fact the most interesting conflict is built around this. Chief of Staff Yahara is the voice of reason, and advocates a defensive battle taking advantage of Okinawa’s caves and hills. Theoretically this could wear down the American assault, at least keeping the enemy force stuck in a vicious battle for months. On the other side is General Isamu Cho (Tetsuro Tamba), one of the architects of the Rape of Nanking, though the film fails to mention this at all. While aware of mistakes made by high command, he himself starts to push for a grand offensive, and once he gets his wish things go really downhill. Overseeing them is their commander, Mitsuru Ushijima (Keiju Kobayashi), who I think Okamoto intended to be a calming and thoughtful figure, but ends up looking too passive and therefore too willing to go along with suicidal tactics.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by a lot of little characters. This is a docudrama, so there’s no deep study of anyone’s character, but there are standouts. The Okinawan civilians come off as very sympathetic. There’s a barber who used to be in the army who has a very optimistic attitude, students who are drafted into the army, and a group of volunteer nurses, including one former prostitute who provides some genuine, though dark, humor. The film presents the Okinawans, a minority within Japan, as pro-Japanese and eager to help out their rulers. While there were doubtlessly some genuine cases, reality was far different. The civilians were often forced against their will into doing manual labor or even fighting the invaders. The Japanese military would also use them as shields, take their food, and even commit some of the same atrocities practiced on other Asian peoples. After all, Japanese culture at the time was ridiculously arrogant and demeaning towards all non-Japanese. This isn’t to say that US troops didn’t kill them either, which is shown several times in the movie. American veterans have freely admitted that thanks to the confusion of the battle and the inability to tell some civilians apart from the Japanese, they would wind up gunning down many innocents and torching their houses. Despite the film’s refusal to accurately depict Japanese-Okinawan relations, it does a good job of showing the horror as the entire island’s culture is destroyed. Up to a third of the Okinawans were killed in the three months of the battle.

Of interest is the portrayal of the American soldiers. They barely ever appear on screen, mainly because Japan doesn’t have too many white people to use. The first onscreen encounter depicts the Japanese going up against a column of tanks, with no view of their occupants. When they finally appear, almost halfway through, their faces are half-covered by helmets. Only once, when a marine is bayoneted, does the audience see a full face. This makes the Americans look like impersonal killing machines, though to be fair Japanese soldiers were often portrayed as a bunch of babbling, kill-hungry monsters by Hollywood.

If you watch this film expecting awesome battle scenes, you will be disappointed save for some splendid explosives work. Thanks to the lack of white extras and possibly budgetary problems afflicting the Japanese movie industry at the time, it’s hard to show a full-fledged battle. There is a lot of violence. Early on groups of civilians huddle around grenades and blow themselves up, with all of the survivors grabbing branches and instruments so that they can finish each other off. This is done against the film’s oddly cheerful theme, creating an eerie soundtrack dissonance. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the Japanese are presented as doing a pretty decent job of fighting the Americans until about halfway through, when Cho gets his wish and a massive offensive is launched. Naturally, the technologically superior Americans mow down tons of Japanese. From there on it’s a losing battle which culminate in a lengthy sequence of suicides, ranging from women drinking poison to officers committing seppuku to a father hacking his own son to death. Almost every character ends up dead, though thankfully Yahara, who elicits much sympathy with his competence, makes it out alive by disguising himself as an Okinawan.

Overall, I would recommend this movie to history buffs, especially those who want to see a film from the Japanese perspective. But be warned, it does nothing to acknowledge or apologize for Japan’s war crimes. It does promote a strong anti-war message and a condemnation of an insane culture of ritual suicide. Okamoto refrains from having any of the characters speechify on the horrors of ritual suicide, opting for a more faithful presentation of how they would have acted. He also lets the visuals, what’s happening on screen, show how terrible war is and why it should be avoided in the future. It’s a brutal film that, despite its two-and-a-half hour running time, moves along nicely thanks to fast editing and a grim but fascinating portrayal of one of the last great battles of history.

As a Godzilla fan I have to mention a couple other things. Battle of Okinawa was produced by Toho, the same studio which runs the Godzilla franchise. Doing the special effects is Teruyoshi Nakano, famous for his pyrotechnics heavy work in the 1970s Kaiju films. Watch Godzilla vs. Gigan and Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla to see what I mean. This strength was valuable for Battle of Okinawa, which features tons of explosions, the highlight being a successful Japanese attack on an American airfield. Doing the music is Masaru Sato, who did a few of the Godzilla films. The main theme for the movie was actually reworked and appropriately used as the Okinawa theme in Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla. Ironically, a giant monster movie actually ended up being more accurate in its depiction of Japanese-Okinawan relations, as an old man shows bitter anger towards the Japanese (but more for ancient conflicts than WWII in particular).

Final Rating: 8/10