Film festivals in general—and Fantastic Fest in particular, I suspect—present a situation that’s both fun and kind of intimidating: Take a bunch of people who prefer to spend their time immersed in fantasy worlds, and make them socialize with each other for an entire week. On the one hand, it’s exciting to meet people who have the same passionate feelings about obscure genre films as you do. On the other, serious cinephiles tend to be introverts, and introverts, as a rule, find parties draining. In other words, by the sixth day of the festival, the standard icebreaker question—“What have you seen so far?”—has taken on a certain world-weary quality.
A last-minute addition to the schedule, the North American premiere of Shin Godzilla (Grade: B), formerly known as Godzilla: Resurgence, promised to change that, at least for the specific subset of nerd that’s really into Godzilla movies. Already a massive hit in its native Japan, Shin Godzilla (colloquially, “New Godzilla” or “True Godzilla”) is the 32nd Godzilla film to be produced in total, and the 29th from Toho, the Japanese studio that originated the franchise back in 1954. And Toho’s reclamation of the franchise is very Japanese and very much a Godzilla movie, both in its positive and negative aspects.
Promotional materials trumpeted the fact that this will be the biggest Godzilla ever seen on screen, and for those who were disappointed in the lack of Godzilla in Gareth Edwards’ movie, Shin Godzilla will serve as a satisfying corrective. (The ratio in this one is about 20 minutes of Godzilla to 100 minutes of talking about Godzilla, which is actually pretty good.) One spectacular battle sequence in the middle of the movie had my theater erupting into applause; compared to that scene, the final conflict later in the film is positively anticlimactic. Director Hideaki Anno gives Shin Godzilla’s incarnation of the creature—created with a combination of puppets, animatronics, and CGI—some cool characteristics, such as the ability to evolve into different forms, a nuclear reactor just under its skin that makes its gills glow flaming red in the dark, and an H.R. Giger-inspired look at Godzilla reproduction.
However, most of the film is, as always, people very calmly discussing what this creature is and how they’re going to kill it, an exposition dump that doubles as a bit of sly political satire. At least a vague awareness of the labyrinthine nature of Japanese bureaucracy is helpful to catch all the humor in Anno’s film, as well as its critique of how the government handled the 2011 tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster. Some bits, like the institutional panic that results when the monster goes from sea to land—thus putting it under the jurisdiction of a different government ministry—and a running gag involving characters’ official titles flashing on the screen, work really well. Others, like the character of Japanese American liaison Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), are less pointed and more just silly. But Godzilla fans are used to a bit of silliness and a lot of talking in these movies. In fact, they love them for it.
Also screened yesterday: First, Original Copy (Grade: B-), a sensitively shot, impressionistic documentary about Sheik Rahman, one of the last artists dedicated to producing hand-painted movie posters in a decaying Hindi film theater in Mumbai. Late in the film, Rahman laments that his children don’t see any value in his life’s work, a heartbreaking statement that’s really hammered home when we realize that he and his assistants paint over their huge banner posters after each film ends its run. If anything, Original Copy doesn’t spend enough time with Rahman and his crew, losing focus as it attempts to profile other aspects of the theater as well.
Second, there’s Asura: City Of Madness (Grade: B-), a pitch-black Korean thriller about a cop caught between the crooked mayor of his Gotham-esque town and the also-crooked prosecutor determined to destroy the mayor’s reputation. Hwang Jung-min gives a standout performance as Mayor Park, who acts like more of a crime boss than an elected official, and the bloodshed reaches downright Shakespearean levels during a violent final showdown in a funeral home. But at 132 minutes, the movie is about a half hour too long, with a couple too many plot threads. In a post-Wire world, the repeated use of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” on the soundtrack is also a bit on the nose for a political corruption tale, but the film was reportedly finished just before its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, so the music might not be final.