Wednesday, April 9, 2014

GodzillaMania #8: All Monsters Attack/Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Gigan/Megalon

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

All Monsters Attack: 0/F

We’re entering the dog days of Godzilla, folks. Following the success of Destroy All Monsters, Toho reneged on its plan to end the series and made the 10th, and shittiest, film in the series, All Monsters Attack (also known as Godzilla’s Revenge, to my utter bewilderment). It’s not that gearing a Godzilla film specifically towards young children is a bad idea, especially given that the King of the Monsters primarily appealed to kids at this point. The problem is that All Monsters Attack is an almost impossibly lazy cash-grab of a movie, one destined to bore children and adults alike.

Ichiro Miki (Tomonori Yazaki) is alatchkey kid in Tokyo. He doesn’t have many friends his age (only Eisei Amamoto’s eccentric toymaker mentor) and is relentlessly bullied by Sancho (Junichi Ito), nicknamed “Gabara.” Lonely, Ichiro daydreams about visiting Godzilla and his son Minilla on Monster Island. One day, he’s forced to hide from Sancho and his friends in an abandoned factory, where he finds the driver’s license of one of the two bank robbers hiding in the factory. The men follow Ichiro home and kidnap him, and it’s only Ichiro’s imaginary friendship with Minilla, who urges him to face his fears, that can save him now.

It isn’t the most exciting narrative, to put it lightly. Perhaps the material could have made for a halfway decent children’s film about facing fears had that been the full picture, but with Ichiro’s daydreams and the shoehorned in bank robbers plot to contend with the central storyline doesn’t develop beyond a rote bullied-kid storyline. Beyond that: this is a goddamned Godzilla movie. Kids come to these things to see Godzilla fight, not another small kid fritter away his hours daydreaming and dealing with a pair of bumbling thieves who play like a boring version of Harry and Marv from Home Alone, or take his “fight your own battles” lesson to dubious places when the film ends with him purposefully startling a painter so as to get him to drop paint on himself, then running away from it. Ichiro’s train conductor father mentions at one point that it’s hard to understand kids today. Hey, guy, I understand that kids go to monster movies to see monsters.

But what really makes All Monsters Attack an inept and galling exercise is the footage of Ichiro on Monster Island, as around 80% of it is comprised of stock footage from previous Godzilla movies. Ichiro arrives to watch Godzilla fight a bunch of monsters, but devoted viewers will recognize that they’re the exact same fights from Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla.  It’s not even good recycled footage; we get to re-watch the lame fights between Godzilla and the giant lobster Ebirah, Godzilla and the giant mantises (Kamacuras), the giant spider (Kumonga), and the unnamed giant condor. The new footage is largely comprised of A. Godzilla and Minilla dealing with a rather stupid-looking new monster called Gabara (just like the kid who bullies Ichiro!) and B. Minilla talking with Ichiro about how Godzilla expects him to fight his own battles (though he’s less aggravating in Japanese than he is in English). To make matters more depressing, All Monsters Attack was directed by series founder Ishirō Honda, who had wanted to get out of the kaiju genre and who tossed this one out after Destroy All Monsters renewed interest in the series. The series would see other low points, including that abortive American remake, but this is almost undoubtedly the nadir.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah: 56/B-

For the 11th Godzilla film, Toho handed the series to a director other than Ishirō Honda or Jun Fukuda for the first time since 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again. Inspired by a visit to a polluted beach, director Yoshimitsu Banno decided to give 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) an overt message, the series’ first since Mothra vs. Godzilla seven years earlier. Banno also decided to incorporate a few other, trippier elements, including animation and psychedelia. The results were uneven, to say the least, but far more interesting than the previous effort.

After being brought an odd tadpole-like creature by a local fisherman, Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) and his young son Ken investigate, only to find a microscopic alien life form that feeds off of Earth’s pollution. The creature, Hedorah, attacks Yano and moves on to land, where it can switch between aquatic, terrestrial and airborne forms. Ken has a vision of Godzilla helping mankind fight the pollution monster, but when Hedorah’s toxic body both harms the giant lizard and doesn’t react to Godzilla’s usual attacks, Yano must find a new way to make the creature more susceptible to him.

The film establishes jarring disparate tones early on, beginning with an effective B-movie moment of creepy reptilian eyes moving through a polluted lake only to switch to an rock-and-roll tinged opening credits sequence that feels like a Japanese James Bond movie is starting up. It doesn't get any less schizophrenic: after a fairly effective scene where Hedorah attacks Yano and Ken discovers that using a knife on a sludge-monster won’t have much effect, the film shifts to a cheerful Hedorah cartoon, and later to a scene that sees Godzilla framed against the sun like a kung fu hero, and later alternating between Godzilla fighting Hedorah and a rock club with a guy freaking out and hallucinating a bunch of people wearing fish masks. It’s a nutty film, in short, but that’s part of what makes it so bizarrely enjoyable – you never quite know what Banno’s going to throw at the screen next (answer: a bunch of TV personalities appearing in split screen and yelling at Hedorah while a baby cries, the hippie characters going into a field to escape pollution and rock out, or Godzilla making himself fly by using his radioactive breath).

The oddness helps leaven the fact that Banno’s allegory is pretty blunt, bordering on didactic, and that Hedorah is a pretty goofy looking monster. The monster-movie moments aren’t without their charms: Godzilla actually seems badly hurt when he’s hit by toxic sludge, the characters try to find a scientific (well, pseudo-scientific) solution for the first time in a long time, and the effect of Hedorah’s toxic fumes or sludge on humans (cut away, back to disintegrated clothes and skeletons) is effective, if obvious. But it’s hard to choreograph fights between Godzilla and a giant sludge monster even if you’ve made it a bit of a shape-shifter that can walk or fly depending on the situation. And some of the dialogue setting up the us vs. pollution storyline is pretty goofy (“Godzilla would be angry if he saw this!”). But then, there’s a certain goofiness to most of the films in the Showa series (roughly the first 15 films), so it’s nice to get one that’s at least trying something new.

Godzilla vs. Gigan: 41/C

The same can’t be said for 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, which was put into production after Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka saw Godzilla vs. Hedorah and hated it, saying that Banno had ruined Godzilla (which, if All Monsters Attack didn’t do it, nothing will). Tanaka fired Banno from the planned Godzilla vs. Hedorah 2, also making sure Banno would never direct for Toho again. He then brought back director Jun Fukuda and scrapped Hedorah 2 for a more traditional “Godzilla and Humanity vs. Aliens” storyline. Intended as a return to form, Godzilla vs. Gigan is more of a sign of a series that was running out of steam.

Manga artist Gengo (Hiroshi Ishikawa) is hired by a peace-themed park creepily titled World Children’s Land, which has a centerpiece called “Godzilla Tower” (shaped like the big green guy himself). Gengo starts to suspect something’s up when he notices the intense secrecy of the place, and when a pair of newfound friends steal a tape from the organization after explaining that they’ve kidnapped their brother. Gengo and company discover that World Children’s Land’s staff is made up of giant alien cockroaches who have taken on the form of dead humans in order to colonize earth. The stolen tape contains a signal incomprehensible to humans, but totally understandable to Godzilla and Anguirus, who realize that the aliens are bringing Ghidorah and the new monster Gigan to attack earth.

At this point, the series had more or less milked Ghidorah bone dry, so it’s probably a positive that the original plan to make him the central monster antagonist was rejiggered. To the film’s credit, Gigan is a fairly interesting monster far different from what the series had seen before. He seems to be part organic monster, part mechanical, with a lizard body but a beaklike mouth, scythe-shaped hands, a laser-red eye and a buzzsaw on his chest. It’s a cool design, and one that makes for some of the more memorably bloody moments in Godzilla history.

But Gigan’s design is just about the only point of interest in the movie. While the mystery of what exactly is going on is doled out fairly effectively, pretty much everything about the villains’ actions and ways of carrying themselves screams “I AM AN ALIEN! AN ALIEEEEN!,” and they don’t differentiate themselves from the previous extraterrestrial villains in any memorable way. The heroes are pretty dull, too, save for some odd opening moments in which Gengo pitches his ideas for manga monsters, Shukura and Mamagon (monsters made up of homework and strict mothers, respectively). Fukuda didn’t become any more skillful a director in the five years between his last Godzilla movie, either, with some of the compositions being particularly inept (he uses a fisheye lens for a driving scene, for some reason).

For all of the effort to create Gigan, it doesn’t pay off. Fukuda drags out the scenes of Ghidorah and Gigan destroying Tokyo, with no real obstacles, to the degree where it becomes repetitive, and he doesn’t stage the monster fights in a memorable way. What’s worse, he relies on stock footage from Destroy All Monsters for many of the Ghidorah moments (Anguirus chomping on Ghidorah’s neck and being lifted into the air), darkening the scene to make it look slightly different. And Godzilla himself has rarely looked worse, as the budget was low and the reused suit from 1967’s  Destroy All Monsters was clearly falling apart at this point. It’s a shoddy way to treat the main attraction. When the most memorable moment in your Godzilla movie is a bizarre scene in which Godzilla and Anguirus communicate via speech bubbles (gravelly spoken voices in the English version), you have not made a very good movie.

Godzilla vs. Megalon: 19/D+

Still, it’s better than the follow-up, 1973’s notoriously awful Godzilla vs. Megalon. The byproduct of the popular tokusatsu genre (heavy special effects films and TV shows often involving superheroes or mechas), the film wasn’t initially going to feature Godzilla at all, but rather serve as a vehicle for an Ultraman knockoff called Jet Jaguar. Toho wasn’t sure that Jet Jaguar could headline his own film, however, so they brought Godzilla and Gigan on for marketing value, shot the film in three weeks, and called it a day. It didn’t turn out well.

Nuclear testing has harmed the underwater nation of Seatopia, and they’ve decided to set their god, a giant beetle called Megalon, upon the human race. For whatever reason, they decide that they need Jet Jaguar, a robot created by an inventor living near the lake (!) where Seatopia lives under, to guide Megalon to destroy whatever they need. The inventor, his younger brother, and their friend are able to steal Jet Jaguar back and bring Godzilla to the fray while the Seatopians send a distress call to the aliens from the previous film to send Gigan.

It’s a half-assed story executed indifferently, with Fukuda’s terrible knack for pacing making the early going of the film particularly slow. The Seatopians are lame adversaries even for a late-period Showa film, and their undersea lair is cheap and poorly constructed. The lowlight (or laughable highlight, depending on your point of view) of the human storyline in the film is an incoherently shot fistfight between one of the heroes and a Seatopian that never seems to connect one shot to the other to form a clear picture.

Godzilla vs. Megalon can’t quite live down to All Monsters Attack’s cheapness or Ebirah, Horror of the Deep’s dullness, but it still has a number of series lows, including some of the worst effects of the series. Godzilla got a much-needed new suit following the wear and tear on the previous model, but he now seems to resemble a giant frog…whenever Fukuda and company aren’t cutting back to old stock footage, which again comprises much of the film’s effects, including most of the opening.

Megalon is a pretty lame new foe, too, a giant beetle with hands the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew compared to small Chrysler buildings and a tendency to bungle his way into destruction (he destroys a dam seemingly out of incompetence). Godzilla isn’t even the main attraction, most of the time, but rather second banana to Jet Jaguar (who gets a memorably silly song). The giant robot is more interesting than anything else that’s happening on screen (save for this delightfully goofy moment), but that’s not saying much. The film ends with a noncommittal shrug, as the heroes claim that the Seatopians should be left alone, as they don’t want to fight any more than they do (what). There were a couple more films left in the Showa series, but at this point it was clear the King of the Monsters needed to take some time off.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
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Monday, April 7, 2014

Under the Skin

Grade: 90/A-

The term “Kubrickian” is thrown around a lot these days, but it legitimately applies to Under the Skin, the third film by Jonathan Glazer and his first since 2004’s underrated Birth. Under the Skin opens with one of the strangest and most arresting sequences in recent film history, as a large circular objects lowers itself to the screen as ambient sound and scratching string music blares on the soundtrack. The sound of Scarlett Johansson’s smoky voice enters, but it’s not forming coherent words. Glazer doesn’t immediately explain what’s happening, but rather expects viewers to put it together. What’s even more thrilling than what Glazer trusts us with is that even as the object turns from something abstract to something more coherent (an eye), we can’t forget the alien origin of the object – it remains deeply unsettling.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who remains unnamed in the credits, although some reviews have referred to her as “Laura.” Johansson spends her days and nights traveling Scotland, picking up men, enticing them to follow her. When she brings them into their apartment, she strips off her clothes, and as they do they same, they’re trapped in an odd black liquid.

There’s more background in Michel Faber’s original novel, but Glazer forgoes exposition and abstracts the narrative to deliriously cinematic effect. Most of Under the Skin’s first two thirds play like a cross between 2001 and a horror movie: Johansson cruises Scotland, picks up men, and lures them to their horrible fate. Mica Levi’s deeply unsettling score begins with low violins and a slow near-metronomic march as the men are lured into a black void of a room as Johansson strips without emotion, her body reflected by the sleek black floor. The men can’t help but follow her lead, ignoring her vacant, predatory gaze and the HOLY SHIT THERE IS NOTHING IN THIS ROOM SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG as they’re swallowed into a void to the sound of shrill violins.
It’s repetitive, but hypnotically so, as each episode gradually reveals more about Johansson’s purpose and what awaits the men beneath the liquid while still remaining essentially abstract. There’s an intense sense of alienation as Johansson roams the country, as voices around her become indecipherable, echoing noise and the men’s thick, often difficult to understand Scottish brogues make humanity seem just as foreign to us as they are to her. Glazer capitalizes on that feeling by placing Johansson in places where she’s forced to react to human behavior.

A breathless sequence on a beach could serve as its own mini-masterpiece: Johansson tries to pick up a vacationing Czech surfer, only to have her conquest interrupted as a nearby woman runs into the tide to save her drowning dog, followed by her husband trying to save her and the surfer chasing after him. Johansson’s non-reaction to the tragedy before her eyes is made more eerie by the long shot Glazer frames her in to heighten her distance from the messy humanity on display. And that’s before the shocking climax to the scene plays, followed by an even more uneasy denouement involving the couple’s screaming infant child completely forgotten on the beach.

It’s not just human behavior Glazer makes unrecognizable and distancing: large chunks of the film borrow from cinema history in order to render the familiar alien. There are wide shots of vistas reminiscent of John Ford or David Lean, but the landscapes are punishing rather than lush. The seductions-turned-murders have the structure of slasher movies, but they don’t follow the same rhythms and are more frightening and unpredictable because of it.

The “Kubrickian” label applies in this sense, but Glazer takes that influence and turns it on its head as well, as there’s a more open and intuitive sense to Johansson picking up men, with many of the scenes on Scottish streets being shot on the fly without the knowledge of the people around it. And while Stephanie Zacharek has already mentioned in her excellent review of how the nudity feels more akin to Eadweard Muybridge’s anthropological stills than horror or even art-house films, but there’s also a sense of making Muybridge’s humane and curious photos into something more outlandish and terrifying.

Glazer’s most daring gambit is taking one of the world’s most glamorous movie stars and defamiliarizing her. In the polar opposite of her performance in Her, in which her body is removed but her warm and lively presence remains, Johansson appears as a living abyss, something that mimics human behavior without understanding it or ever fully achieving it, all for a cruel and deadly purpose. Many praise actors or actresses as brave whenever they appear onscreen nude (as Johansson does here), but the real fearlessness in her performance is the willingness to appear blank and inscrutable, allowing the viewer to project their thoughts and feelings onto her in any attempt to find out what’s going on in her head.

For the first hour, Under the Skin follows her lead, remaining horrifying and enigmatic up to the point where Johansson picks up a deformed victim without realizing there’s anything strange to him, allowing him a kindness he hasn’t known that makes the knowledge of where this is heading all the more unbearable. And then the film shifts. It develops a more defined narrative that orients us more than the previous hour. Johansson turns from predatory to a lost, confused and lonely soul more curious about human behavior and aching for a connection.

Thematically, this shift is totally in keeping with the rest of the film. Glazer covers the universality of loneliness, the control of sexuality and body image (and the loss of control), and the frustration of all of the above. Glazer and Johansson handle the shift deftly, as she tries to embrace her body, her sex, the human senses. It’s a path not unlike that of Jeff Bridges in Starman, only without ever being able to transition to human experience.

The only trouble is that while this section is beautifully realized, not to mention still singular and audacious compared to most films, it can’t help but feel conventional compared to what’s come before. Even as the film moves towards a haunting finale, there’s a feeling of familiarity that was gloriously absent from the early going. It’s a relative disappointment, however, and one that may fall away with repeat viewings (this is a film that defies instantaneous reactions). Even if Under the Skin falls short of near-perfection, it still feels like one of the major film achievements of the year.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Dom Hemingway

Grade: 61/B-

Dom Hemingway loves his penis. That’s the first thing we learn in Dom Hemingway, in an opening scene that features Jude Law shirtless, sweaty, and clearly getting a blowjob as he rants about how his cock should be declared a work of art, and that wars should be fought over it. A cell window is in the corner of the frame, but prison hasn’t stopped this safecracker from getting off or diffused his ego. In the next scene, Dom starts an argument with a guard who wants him to put down his pudding and get a message, insulting him endlessly until he relents, only to find out that the guard is there to give him good news, that’s he’s getting out following 12 years in prison.

These scenes establish an enjoyably wackadoo tone for Dom Hemingway, the new film from The Matador director Richard Shepard. Like that earlier film, Dom Hemingway works best as a vehicle to see a star (Pierce Brosnan in the former, Law here) take his persona to hilariously venal heights. Law has played nasty characters before (the entitled rich kid of The Talented Mr. Ripley, I Heart Huckabees’s soulless shill), but here he tones down the megawatt smile and cranks up the nastiness. Dom’s the kind of guy who’s skills as a safecracker can’t quite live up his legendary hedonism or his habit of insulting or threatening anyone who comes across him.

Dom Hemingway is never more entertaining than when pitting Dom against more subdued criminals and watching them react. Richard E. Grant is a terrific foil Dom’s erudite but long-suffering best friend, while the polite under-reactions of Demian Bichir (as the Russian crime boss who owes Dom for not naming him) to Dom’s volatility are a great contrast to Grant’s constant state of exasperation. It’s true that most of Dom Hemingway plays as a serious of episodes (separated by title cards like “12 Years is a Long Time”) without too much on their mind, but the episodes are consistently funny, so it’s hard to care too much.

At least, that’s the way it plays for the first 45 minutes of the film. At a certain point in the narrative, Shepard makes the mistake of humanizing Dom by giving him an estranged daughter (Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke). It’s a maudlin development that feels at odds with the inspired lunacy of the first half, and the film inelegantly shifts back and forth between the two. For every sequence of Law going wild (highlight: betting that he can open a safe, putting his beloved penis up as his bet, and humping the safe to get it open), there’s a painful scene of a hardened criminal getting weepy over how he treated his daughter and deceased wife. But even for all of its missteps, Dom Hemingway is held together by Law’s fearlessly abrasive performance and charisma. Dom might be a bastard, but for the best stretches of the film, he’s our bastard.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or the brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

GodzillaMania #7: Ebirah/Son of Godzilla/Destroy All Monsters

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Ebirah, Horror of the Deep: 13/D

Ishirō Honda guided the Godzilla franchise through most of its early days, but in 1966, for the first time in over a decade, he wasn’t available to work on the next one. With Honda committed to another kaiju film, The War of the Gargantuas, Toho brought on Jun Fukuda, a director better known for comedy than big budget horror. Fukada’s had the same series screenwriter has Honda, Shinichi Sekizawa, but either the franchise was running thin or Fukuda and Sekizawa just came up with a particularly poor scenario, because Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster) is one of the weakest films in the series.

Yata (Toru Ibuki) has lost his brother, Ryota (Toru Watanabe) at sea, but a psychic tells him that he’s still alive. Yata nd his friends steal a boat belonging to a bank robber on the run (Choutarou Tougin), but on the way the group is attacked by the giant lobster Ebirah and are washed ashore. There, a terrorist organization known as Red Bamboo is brewing chemical weapons and has enslaved natives from Infant Island for their purposes. The natives hope that Mothra will rescue them, but Yata and company come up with a new plan: revive Godzilla, who’s sleeping in a cavern.

On top of Honda’s upcoming The War of the Gargantuas, Toho’s budgets were going down as Japanese theater attendance declined with the growing popularity of television (having Akira Kurosawa’s expensive Red Beard in their books probably didn’t help any). Right from the beginning, it’s clear that Fukuda is working on a much tighter budget. While the film is mostly shot on location rather than expensive sets, the film still feels cheap, with poor effects and endless time wasting on an uninvolving espionage subplot in order to keep the monster fights to a minimum.

Even with the budget aside, however, this is shoddy work. Fukuda’s broad comic instincts make for some irritating moments, from the mugging of the hero’s two friends to goofy music to a moment where our heroes are hanging upside down (it’s wacky). On top of that, Sekizawa’s human plot is needlessly convoluted even for a Godzilla movie, with too many heroic characters, character bits that don’t pay off (the bank robber’s past), and the needless delay of Godzilla coming back into action.

Speaking of which: the big green guy takes nearly an hour to show up in an 87-minute movie, and when he does, much of his behavior doesn’t feel quite right. Toho originally intended for the film to star King Kong instead of Godzilla, but they didn’t change the script when they switched monsters. Consequently, Godzilla’s frequently acts like Kong did in King Kong vs. Godzilla: he’s resurrected by lightning, he fights more often with boulders than with his radioactive breath, and he attacks Mothra when he shows up to save the day, despite their being friends in their last joint outing. And even if we’re to ignore that, the fight sequences are incoherently shot and dull, whether Godzilla’s fighting Ebirah (a lame antagonist in any right) or a giant condor in what’s essentially a shitty retread of the Godzilla/Mothra/Rodan fights. Poorly directed, plodding, and almost totally without interest, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep is one of the worst Godzilla movies.

Son of Godzilla: 37/C

That said, it was still reasonably successful, so Toho barreled ahead with another one the next year. Fukuda and Sekizawa returned, armed with an even lower budget than before but a surefire idea to keep Godzilla popular with the kids: give him an adorable, comical son. Given the level of backlash that Son of Godzilla has received among friends from making the King of the Monsters even more innocuous than he had been in a few years, it’s a welcome relief to report that it’s not as mind-numbingly dull as the previous installment. Is it still plenty dull? Oh, lord yes.

Goro Maki (Akira Kubo, who played the inventor in Invasion of Astro-Monster) is a reporter who parachutes onto down (just go with it) to get a scoop on the scientists doing odd tests on an island. When an experiment goes awry, a bunch of 2-meter tall giant praying mantises grow even larger and start to terrorize the island. The mantises (called Kamacuras in the Japanese version and Gimantises in the English version) dig up and attack an egg, which contains Minilla, the son of Godzilla. Godzilla rescues and raises his son, who befriends a woman on the island but inadvertently awakes a giant spider, Kumonga.

That’s not so much a plot as it is a bunch of stuff happening, so it’s hardly even worth getting into the human material. The least that can be said is that the movie isn’t quite as slow as Ebirah, but it does give a bigger showcase to Fukuda’s excruciating sense of humor (see: man washing his vegetables in a sink, only to find that’s where another man washed his underwear). The whole feel of the film is wrong, down to the littlest details – the musical score from Masaru Sato sounds more at place in a Jerry Lewis movie than here.

Most of the new monsters rival Ebirah for dullness, with the Kamacuras looking decidedly unthreatening next to Godzilla and Kumonga serving as your average B-movie giant spider. The biggest complaint for fans comes down to Minilla, the Scrappy-Doo of the Godzilla series. Minilla isn’t quite as irritating here as he will be a few films from now, and for the kids movie angle the film is shooting for, the film isn’t torture. But Godzilla fans’ tolerance for the movie largely depends on how much they can take of Godzilla acting like a deadbeat dad and Minilla acting cutesy. The former is occasionally a mitigating factor, with Godzilla showing little patience for his kid’s shit when he’s training him to be a big bad monster (he can only blow radioactive smoke rings, which isn’t enough for big Godzilla). But a little of Minilla goes a long way, and by the time he’s put in peril in the film’s finale, it’s hard to not want to ever see him again.

Destroy All Monsters; 68/B

Minilla returns for Destroy All Monsters, but in a limited way. Who was back in a big way? Ishirō Honda! As ticket sales declined for Son of Godzilla, Toho brought Honda back as a director and co-writer (along with his War of the Gargantuas collaborator Takeshi Kimura) for what was planned to be the final film in the series, complete with a larger budget. Honda and Kimura had a hell of a plan to go out on: bring back the successful space elements from the Ghidorah elements, and throw in damn near every monster who’d ever appeared in a Godzilla film, with a few extra Toho monsters to boot. The result wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the series, but it was a welcome return to form.

All of the monsters in the world have been captured and contained on Monsterland, which keeps the likes of Godzilla, Minilla, Rodan, Anguirus, Kumonga, Gorosaurus, Manda and Mothra (even though he’s never harmed humanity) in a well-maintained area, complete with force fields and a research center to study them. When all communications are cut off on Monsterland, Captain Yamabe (Kudo again) is sent on his spaceship to investigate. They find that a group of feminine aliens known as the Kilaaks have taken control of the scientists and the monsters, who they have transported to different locations around the globe to wreak havoc until humanity surrenders. Yamabe and company discover that the Kilaaks are using their lunar base to transmit signals, and they attack it to break their control of the monsters and win back the world.

It’s a bit of a retread of Astro-Monster, but who cares? Production value, and lots of it! The film starts with a sense of grandeur as we get to see all of the monsters together, living in peace, and better space sets than ever. The aliens still look silly, but Honda uses an echoing sound design to make them feel otherworldly and menacing. And while the human plot is never going to be as interesting as the monsters on display, there’s genuine suspense in the story as the brainwashed scientists start behaving unpredictably, committing suicide to avoid questioning. There’s even some impressive make-up work at one point as the heroes have to perform an autopsy to find out how they’re being controlled and they find small metallic devices buried underneath the characters’ ears.

More to the point though: monsters! All of them! And they’re not just in Tokyo. The sheer excitement of watching Honda and co cut between Rodan attacking Moscow, Godzilla in New York, another monster destroying the Arch de Triumph is incredible. When it comes to an all-out attack on Tokyo, Honda uses space better than he ever has before, utilizing the foreground and background of the scene to showcase just how overwhelming it is.

The finale comes with a bit of a cheat, reintroducing King Ghidorah at the drop of a hat, but it’s hard to complain when holy shit a monster Royal Rumble with everyone vs. King Ghidorah you guys! Perhaps it’s not exactly the most suspenseful fight in the series, given how outmatched Ghidorah is, but the teamwork on display and the clarity of the fight more than makes up for it as Anguirus chomps down on one of Ghidorah’s necks while he’s lifted off the ground as Ghidorah flies, or as the group whales on Ghidorah to the point where even Minilla is getting in on the action, blowing a radioactive smoke ring that goes around the monster’s neck like a horseshoe (see: Minilla actually being funny, Fukuda!). Destroy All Monsters was too successful for it to be the last in the series, but it would have made a fitting conclusion.

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #4: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is Wes Anderson’s fourth film, and not his best received. Some might view it as his One From the Heart or New York, New York. It’s heavily stylized and he had more creative freedom, but it wasn’t well liked on its initial release.

Max O’Connell: Well, people think the reviews were worse than they were. They were highly mixed with a lot of disappointment, but it wasn’t seen as a disaster by as many people as the story tends to go.

LG: I can see why this film turned some people off, though. I wasn’t crazy about it on my first viewing (a bad projection didn’t help) but it’s grown immensely for me on repeat viewings. My initial complaints do line up with what the some of the critics said at the time. The film feels very arch and removed, and as stylized as The Royal Tenenbaums was, this is so much more. I can see a lot of people viewing it as hipsterish or ironic: it starts off with a film-within-a-film of oceanographic explorer/filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) brings his latest documentary to a festival, and the credits for the main film appear within the documentary in this 4:3 aspect ratio, with curtains on the side of the screen to emphasize that we’re in a movie. I can see how this turned some people off.

MO: Yes, but it turned off people who were previously fans, too, and of his archness. I wonder if it might be that he has a different screenwriter this time. For his first three films and his first short, Anderson co-wrote it with his longtime friend Owen Wilson. Wilson has the second biggest role in The Life Aquatic, but he was also becoming a more prominent comic actor at this point, and he didn’t have time to work as a co-screenwriter, or so I understand. Anderson instead brought aboard Noah Baumbach, a director who at that point hadn’t worked in seven years. He made a big splash with Kicking and Screaming, followed by a pair of indifferently received comedies (Highball, Mr. Jealousy), and Anderson is the one who brought him back out, first with this, then as producer for Baumbach’s best film, The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach is a much more abrasive collaborator than Wilson.

LG: It’s not like Anderson’s past characters were warm and cuddly, but Steve Zissou is by far his most prickly protagonist. In terms of archness, this is Anderson’s first big attempt at world building and on paper, the 60’s high seas adventure trappings make it look lighter and more rompish than his previous films. He’d get to making lighter films in the future, but here he actually doubles down and presents a world that under all the whimsy is darker and more bitter than anything he’d done until now. We meet Zissou, a washed up Jack Cousteau type who looses his best friend/right hand man Esteban (Seymour Cassel) when he’s eaten by a “Jaguar Shark” who Steve now hopes to track down and kill. Between the stop-motion sea creatures, rival ships and pirates, I don’t think any of us really expected to see this middle-age, hard to like control freak in the lead, even if that type of character is 100% in keeping with both Anderson’s AND Baumbach’s style.

MO: But oh, the wonderful things around him! How delighted are we by those?

LG: Pretty darn delighted! It’s telling that for Anderson, actual sea life isn’t sufficiently whimsical, so instead he invents sea life in stop motion creatures made by Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.

MO: The stop-motion is really wonderful. It helps accentuate the fantasy of this world, they remove us from reality, the handmade quality of the whole thing, right down to the sets. They’re very lived in, but they have a dollhouse feel.

LG: He turns the Zissou’s boat, the Belafonte, into an actual diorama. There’s a wonderful scene that’s maybe the most Andersonian scene ever, in which Anderson cuts the boat in half on a set so we can see all of the characters walking through the various rooms and we can see all the gadgets they have.

MO: There’s also a scene later that shows that diorama view where Steve has a fight with Ned (Wilson), the man who’s possibly his son, and there’s a long shot following the two as they argue. As they’re doing it, Steve stops the argument to address whoever he passes, and he’ll either lash out at them or, when he runs into the one intern who didn’t quit, he’ll swing to overwhelming praise and say, “Awesome, you’re getting an ‘A’,” followed by a slap on his injured shoulder. It’s a long take that shows the intricacy of the set, but also how Steve’s moods can swing from one moment to another. And it’s a case where I can’t picture it being done better than the way it was done with those dioramas.

LG: There’s a key moment in the film for me where they’re in Italy, and Steve is completely dominating Ned, the son he never wanted but now needs to micromanage. He changes his name to “Kingsley,” he orders wine for him, and he pushes away any sense of individuality Ned might express. And that’s interesting because he has this sort of Bill Nye/Jacques Cousteau profession where he’s supposed to foster individuality and imagination, but he actually stifles it.

MO: Yes, and Ned is willing to go with it for a while because he’s found a new father figure after having lost a lot personally (his mother killed herself after she found out she had terminal ovarian cancer), but after a while Steve micromanages to the point where he pushes away the one man who’s still on his side. Whenever Ned ad libs on camera, Steve is annoyed. The first time, Steve pretends to like it, and the second time he chastises Ned and demands that next time he whisper his idea in Steve’s ear so he can say it in front of the reporter, Jane (Cate Blanchett). Ned goes with it until it gets to this great scene where they’re underwater in scuba gear, and Ned asks Steve if he can call him dad. Steve quickly suggests a different nickname, “Stevesie.”

LG: And I like that it’s in scuba gear that obscures their faces and lets Wilson express his pain through his voice, his eyes and body language, and then the camera drifts away in a very expressive shot.

MO:  You talked about how Steve’s supposed to promote individuality while collecting all of these weird and wonderful misfits on his crew.

LG: That’s right, he doesn’t just do this to Ned, he has an entire crew of people to bully around. The crew of the Belafonte is like this big, dysfunctional version of the Enterprise.

MO: They’re also like a surrogate family that could fall apart at any moment, because they’re working at the whims of a very inconsiderate man. There’s Anne-Marie (Robyn Cohen), the script girl who’s casually topless, which seems to get no attention from anyone.

LG: It is Europe! But what I love about that character is that she’s kind of like the bratty yet very responsible sister, the only one who will tell Steve that his plans are going to get them hurt. Something I noticed is a dichotomy between the old and young in the crew. The young include Anne-Marie and Pelé (Seu Jorge), but then there’s the old, who in the documentary-within-the-film, are given ages that are way off. No way that Klaus (Willem Dafoe), Steve’s eternally loyal German second-in-command, is 45. Nor is the sound guy in his 40s. This is another part of Steve’s control over his world: he’s is living in the past, and not acknowledging their ageing he gets to avoid acknowledging his own. There’s a sense that these guys were once big (this is a world where oceanography and documentaries are big). In the 80s and 90s, they were big enough to have merchandising in the form of Adidas endorsements, action figures and pinball machines. But that’s halted. Steve admits, “I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”

MO: To which his estranged wife Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) plainly says, “That’s true.” It’s interesting considering Bill Murray’s background: onetime comic megastar who, in the 90s, started appearing in low-rent movies before Wes Anderson revitalized his career.

LG: And it’s easy to be on Eleanor’s side, because as they say, she’s the brains of the outfit. There’s a montage where we see everyone doing their job, and Eleanor’s crossing off things that they have planned that are too impractical, like “Skydiving into a volcano.”

MO: One of the interesting things about this movie is that it’s only Wes Anderson’s fourth movie, when he was in his 30s, yet it’s about middle-aged failure. It’s almost like he’s making a movie about not only what he could turn into, but what he could turn into soon enough following these massive successes.

LG: I don’t know how much he intended it, but there is a very meta angle to that.

MO: Owen Wilson is still there in a major role, but it’s interesting that he’s gone as the co-screenwriter in a film in which a man loses his right-hand man in the beginning. The other interesting thing is that there’s a concern about losing your touch by fakery. Steve is clearly affected by Esteban’s death, but he didn’t capture it on camera, so he restages it. That’s become a regular part of his movies, fakery, but here’s a point where it reaches its most egregious. He knows he doesn’t have it anymore, so he’s just going to fake it. And this is a point in Anderson’s career where some felt that it was a lot of fakery and not enough heart (which is absurd, but whatever).

LG: And there’s a classic Wes Anderson thing of people using fantasy to insulate themselves from the real world. Steve is dealing with tough stuff, so he uses the fact that he’s in a film to shield himself. Any time he starts to feel something, he asks if it’s being caught on film. That, for me, is him pushing away something real. That might have turned people off, too. There is a sense of remove, and Bill Murray’s performance is very minimalistic. At first glance, it seems like he’s not doing much, but he’s actually doing a lot. There are little tonalities that are very important. There’s this one moment near the end where he’s reading a letter he wrote to Ned many years ago, and the way he emphasizes, “I remember your mother…” is very subtle, pointed, and effective.

MO: Not just in emotional ways, because this is one of Anderson’s saddest movies, but Murray is also really funny in this. His timing in this is great. I love in the opening scene where he’s being interviewed by the press about his latest film, and his pauses for every answer are priceless. “What would be the scientific purpose of killing the shark?” (long pause, then very matter of fact) “Revenge.”

LG: I also love the autograph scene, where an older fan has around 20 posters that he wants Steve to sign (based on a real event Anderson saw Murray go through). After so many signatures, he just says, “Just sign the rest yourself.”

MO: To be fair to Steve, at that point, I might lose my patience as well.

LG: Let’s talk about the music. Every Wes Anderson film is somewhat anchored by one particular musician or style: British Invasion in Rushmore, mainly varying kinds of folk for The Royal Tenenbaums, etc. Here, it’s anchored by David Bowie songs, but not just the originals. Seu Jorge’s crew member plays acoustic David Bowie covers in Portuguese, and they’re wonderful. Bowie even prefers some of them to the studio versions.

MO: It’s interesting how he uses Bowie for key emotional scenes. The use of “Life on Mars?” when Steve first meets Ned, and later on the use of Seu Jorge’s version when Ned first realizes how awful Steve can be, it’s a terrific emotional standpoint.

LG: I love the use of the “Space Oddity” countdown by Jorge as a group of pirates arrive on the Belafonte in a really interesting shot as they emerge from the fog. And Anderson does have a proper rock star doing his music. This is the last score Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo did for Anderson, and the best. I hope they’ll work together again today.

MO: Now, what do you think is the major difference between Steve and his rival, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum)? It’s interesting how there’s a bit of an Indiana Jones/Belloq thing, where neither of them are necessarily great guys, but one of them is our guy.

LG: Hennessey is the more successful one. He’s just been made a knight in Portugal! I want to become a knight in Portugal!

MO: Hennessey is much more confident than Steve, but he’s also much slimier. Steve, at least, you know where you stand with him. Goldblum pretends he doesn’t hate you.

LG: He’s also a character who isn’t a complete villain, which is something about Wes Anderson films that I love. No matter what, there’s always a moment of empathy. Even with the Jaguar shark.

MO: Yeah. It’s funny when Hennessey is kidnapped and the pirates sink his ship, but it’s also moving when they do rescue him. He does seem genuinely a little touched that Steve took the time, because he knows Steve doesn’t like him.

LG: Yeah. The pirates killed his crew, and more hurtful to him, made soup out of his research turtles. I don’t know why but the way that line is delivered, it always registers to me like they might as well have been cannibals, The character relationships in this film are very interesting. Klaus, played by Willem Dafoe beautifully against type, is more childish than scary. He’s competing with Ned to have Steve as his father figure, despite the fact that they’re clearly about the same age. And the reporter, Jane, has a difficult thing with Steve, who fancies himself as a bit of a stud and hits on her, but she’s not having it. She’s also pregnant, because she had an affair with her married editor, but she develops a romance with Ned. It’s a weird love triangle, because it’s a father figure/son fighting over the same woman.

MO: There’s a lot of stuff with father figures. Ned has a new father figure for the first time in his life, then finds out that he’s not a very nice man. Steve never wanted to be a father because he hates fathers, which implies something painful in his past. Jane finds a surrogate father for her child in Ned after the real father essentially abandons it. And Klaus sees Steve and Esteban as father figures.

LG: Wes Anderson maintains that he and his parents have wonderful relationships, but it’s much more interesting to write bad dads. There’s actually an ongoing art instillation at Spoke Art in San Francisco covering his work that was even titled “Bad Dads.” It’s a common trope in his work that also links him to Spielberg in a lot of ways.

MO: There’s a good dad in Rushmore in Seymour Cassel’s character, but they’re very rare.

LG: I’d like to believe that’s what his dad is really like. One of the things that still doesn’t 100% work for me is the implication that Steve has faked the death of Esteban, which I think the film plays with a little too long. There are a few moments that imply that Esteban is still alive somewhere.

MO: I didn’t think that. I thought it was more a thing where he’s taking advantage of his friend’s death.

LG: Eleanor says at one point that she doesn’t want be around because one is already dead, and it’s played as if he forgot or doesn't know what she’s talking about.

MO: Yeah, no, I didn’t get that at all. For me, Esteban is conclusively dead throughout, he just restaged it because he didn’t get it on camera and that’s kind of the person he’s become.

LG: It’s one of the lingering things that doesn’t 100% work for me.

MO: There are a few things that don’t work 100% for me. It’s odd, because there aren’t too many scenes that feel like they’re not there for a reason, but this film feels a bit flabbier compared to Anderson’s previous work. It doesn't move quite as well.

LG: For me it moves very well, but I understand, it does stop for whimsy a lot.

MO: An example would be the scene where Steve points out the radios they have in their headsets. It’s a funny bit, but it’s like, “We’re gonna stop now for a joke.”

LG: For me, it’s a transition to another scene, but I understand how you might think that.

MO: It’s an awkward transition for me. There’s a handful of those. And I think Anderson has talked about this, but the shootout with the pirates is not terribly well staged. I feel like he’s trying to go for chaos and clumsiness, but accidentally makes it more trouble than it’s worth.

LG: “John Woo I ain’t,” I believe was his quote. I actually like that scene. There’s a very handmade aspect to it, where it’s a very low-budget film where they’re going to go out and grab some shots, It’s a cute action scene. I also love that Bill Murray uses the unpaid interns for cover.

MO: That is funny, it’s just the directing of that scene is a bit clumsier than it’s supposed to be for me.

LG: I kind of felt it was going for clumsy.

MO: It is, but the execution is off.

LG: The weird moment where they pause for the Northern Lights does bother me.

MO:…yeah, I don’t know what that’s there for.

LG: Neither do I. Maybe a sense that the tide has turned and nature is with us?

MO: Hmm. Maybe.

LG: It’s also one of his most overtly New Wave films There’s oodles of jump cuts, the bright, saturated colors denote this as a “movie-movie” in a very New Wave way and when Ned dies at the end, there’s flashes of red and white frames that feel straight out of a late 60s Godard film.

MO: Not just that, but it’s at a point where Steve has come to terms with being a bad father and is trying to rectify that. It comes through on the raid in the pirates’ compound, and he tells Klaus how much he means to him, and he apologizes to Ned. Ned has become a full member of Team Zissou, and he’s extended the olive branch to Klaus, effectively becoming a surrogate brother. So much of this film is about not taking for granted the things that really matter, because they could be gone at any point, and Steve connects with Ned just as he loses him. There’s this great montage of Ned’s life flashing before his eyes as he dies in the helicopter crash. And that scene is shocking, but it’s not out of nowhere, because they do mention how the helicopter wasn’t in great shape earlier.

LG: And there’s a running gag with Klaus where he’s supposed to be the guy who fixes things but never does, and just as Klaus becomes friends with Ned, he loses him because he didn’t fix the thing. There’s two things I thought about in that scene. First, there’s a moment where Jane sends him a letter to Ned’s bunk before he leaves, and for me, I feel like that’s a marriage proposal, or an invitation to be the father to her child.

MO: Oh, you know what, that sounds about right. And this is the death that Steve doesn’t exploit, and he puts it in his film respectably, and he’s changed at a terrible cost. It’s brought back emotional honesty in his work.

LG: And I love the ending, the happy 80s Buckaroo Banzai homage where, out of the ashes, a new crew has emerged to go on new, presumably happier adventures together.

MO: Here’s the thing: we talk about all of the great David Bowie songs in this, including “Queen Bitch” over the end credits with the Buckaroo Banzai homage, but my favorite use of music in this film isn’t a Bowie song. It’s the use of the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside” during Ned’s funeral. That’s a moment that’s almost as moving as “The Fairest of the Seasons” for me.

LG: That one gets me every time. There’s a really interesting touch in that ending, though, where as they’re walking to “Queen Bitch,” as they finally board the ship, Ned, despite being dead, is on top of the ship as a spirit of Team Zissou. That’s a very unusual, borderline surrealistic touch. You might not notice it the first time.

MO: I didn’t notice it until this time. That’s stuck in right at the end there. I love how accepting this film is. Even Bud Cort, the prototypical Wes Anderson character in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, plays a bond company stooge who’s in Steve’s corner, not just a bond company stooge. “No bond company stooge would stick his neck out like that.” And everyone who’s still alive is accepted into this big family when they finally see the jaguar shark. It’s wonderful how he uses that great anamorphic framing in a small space there to get it more intimate, to use density to imply togetherness.

LG: I know when he was making the film, he wasn’t always very clear what that jaguar shark scene meant to him. I think, it is a very interesting scene. A lot of people put Moby Dick stuff on it, because of surface comparisons, but that never really held a lot of water for me.

MO: I think it is there, in that it’s a revenge story where our Ahab realizes, as Matt Zoller Seitz suggested, killing his friend was “nothing personal.” Death comes for us.

LG: I don’t think of it as “nothing personal,” I think of it as Steve staring death in the face and seeing it as something big and awe-inspiring, which is kind of what he probably got into this business for in the first place. The world is so big, and beautiful and strange and more fascinating than we think.

MO: And uncontrollable. He’s tried to control nature in his documentaries, and now he’s accepted that he can’t, and here comes the most moving moment he’ll ever be able to capture. He’s encountered this thing that’s responsible for the death of one friend and tangentially responsible for the death of his son, since they died while searching for it, and he’s able to just let it wash over him.

LG: He lost his spiritual brother and spiritual son.

MO: It’s maybe not the cleanest thing Anderson has ever done –

LG: I don’t think it needs to be. Sometimes it’s better to be messy.

MO: Sometimes it’s messy to a fault, but it’s also messy to wonderful degrees, and it’s one of his most thematically interesting and adventurous films, which is why I’m glad it has found a cult following in the years since. Its most passionate defenders stuck by it.

LG: It’s one that’s gotten better on repeat viewings. All the stuff that bothered me fell away, and all of the stuff I was missing popped up. It’s an A- for me.

MO: It’s struck me as much richer on each repeat viewing. It’s an A- (87) for me, too.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. 

I'm also now interning at Indiewire, but you'll have to Google "Max O'Connell Indiewire" to find my clips.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.