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Mistletoe Movie Marathon, Part III

The Mistletoe Movie Marathon continues to continue!

Shin Godzilla: I had heard some hype about Shin Godzilla but became super interested once I learned it was written and co-directed by Hideaki Anno, creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anno is here to answer the question, "What if you made a Godzilla movie that was just two hours of cabinet meetings?" Does that sound boring to you? Well do you remember the chaotic intensity of every Angel attack where people are screaming technobabble at each other to the booming drums of "Decisive Battle"? Imagine two hours of THAT, and you'll understand why this movie FUCKING RULES. (Seriously, this movie even uses remixes of "Decisive Battle" because that music rules.) Anno bombards the viewer with character names and titles, military locations, vehicles, and weapons, taking a more experiential approach to the idea of a kaiju attack. A few "characters" do emerge, but they hardly seem to be the focus of the story. The protagonist of this film isn't a person but humanity itself, represented by the government, and it frequently comes off as a hilarious satire of bureaucratic shenanigans with politicians arguing about how best to deal with this walking natural disaster while thousands of people are dying. The kinetic camera movements, swift editing, and rapid-fire dialogue keep the tension high, high, high, and co-director Shinji Higuchi delivers on the actual Godzilla action, which steadily becomes more terrifying. There's one incredible sequence that feels like Lovecraftian horror, portraying Godzilla as an unfathomable, unstoppable being of pure destruction. On top of all this, it's a film in conversation with the original Godzilla that wrestles with its country's history with nuclear warfare. It's visceral entertainment with thematic resonance, and, I will repeat, it fucking rules. A-

The Peanut Butter Falcon: I find the very existence of The Peanut Butter Falcon as charming as the movie itself. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who had never written a screenplay or directed a film before, met Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, and decided to make a film for him...that ended up starring [takes breath] Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, and Bruce Dern. Plus Yelawolf! And Mick Foley and Jake "The Snake" Roberts! Because this movie is about a young man with Down syndrome who dreams of becoming a wrestler, so he escapes a retirement home and goes on the run with Shia LaBeouf, who's on the run from [checks Wikipedia] "incensed miscreants." This movie is sweet as fuck, folks. Gottsagen is endearing as hell and very funny, and LaBeouf does excellent work with a rather underwritten character. Johnson is a more than welcome presence; she cares deeply for Gottsagen but struggles with her duties to the state. Do you like movies about people forming unlikely bonds? Do you like movies about found families? Do you like movies where people don watermelon helmets for wrestling training out in the fields of Carolina? Nilson and Schwartz are natural filmmakers who evoke the American South visually and aurally, and it's a calm, pleasant journey down the river, occasionally punctuated by incensed miscreants who are one-note and kill the vibe and kinda the weak point of the movie, even though they do help create a dual chase narrative. It makes sense that this was a sleeper hit, as it's hard to imagine someone not enjoying this feel-good movie. B+

Under the Silver Lake: I now understand why A24 delayed the release of Under the Silver Lake for nearly a year until they just shoved it into 2 theaters for a week and dumped it on Amazon Prime because, uh, what the fuck. David Robert Mitchell followed up his excellent It Follows with this confounding yet strangely watchable "neo-noir black comedy conspiracy thriller film" (sometimes the anonymous Wikipedia writer just gets it right, okay). Andrew Garfield plays an unsympathetic horndog loser whose one redeeming quality is his obsession with finding hidden messages and codes in everything, and who doesn't like movies about hidden messages and codes, right. Is the squirrel that falls from a tree and goes splat in front of him in the first five minutes of this movie a hidden message or code? Who knows?!?! Does anything in this movie mean anything? No. The answer is no. But it's still kinda fun to follow him on this surreal, Hitchcock-pastiche odyssey through a hipster David Lynch version of L.A. as Disasterpeace's relentlessly overbearing score lampshades how silly this movie actually is. Kinda. Because after a while, we get it, Mitchell is in a way taking the piss out of these kinds of stories where Everything Is Connected by taking it to absurd levels, so scenes that would come off as exciting, shocking reveals instead come off as resigned shrugs. Is this a smart dumb movie or a dumb smart movie? The second half does contain some interesting ideas that suggest this movie may be trying to Say Something, but it doesn't really get there. And so much of the first half ends up feeling pointless. I sense this is a personal, ambitious film for Mitchell, his own sort of love letter to L.A., and it has its quirky charms, but it could be at least an hour shorter. Still, I can't totally hate a movie where Silversun Pickups appear as Jesus and the Brides of Dracula and perform a banger like "Turning Teeth." B/B+

Atlantics: Mati Diop's Senegalese gothic romance gives no initial indications that it will have any supernatural elements at all, languorously following a young woman in love with one man but betrothed to another. The former goes out to sea in desperation from unpaid wages, but then people claim to have seen him back in town. This movie is slow as hell, and it didn't give me much to engage with for at least forty minutes, when finally something exciting happens, but halfway through, once Diop throws vengeful spirits possessing people into the mix, the movie gets...slightly less boring? Everything about the spirits is actually pretty cool, and their scenes are wonderfully creepy and unnerving, but their presence is so little and so late that it couldn't hook me that hard when the movie had lost me long before that. The central romance is poetic and lovely, and it's entirely built on the strength of the actors, since we don't really know anything about either character. Or any character in this movie, really. Overall, some intriguing elements at play here, but definitely not my jam. B

The Two Popes: I kept hearing buzz about The Two Popes without knowing what it was, and I kept putting off watching The Two Popes because it felt like Obligatory Awards Watching Homework, but when I finally got around to it...it wasn't that bad! It was, in fact, kinda good. I don't care about popes, but this was actually an interesting way to learn more about the papacy and how it operates. Fernando Meirelles, co-director of the incredible City of God, brings that same kinetic energy to...a papal election! I didn't realize popes had their own version of Democrats vs. Republicans, and it's Reform vs. Tradition. This movie is about one pope, Anthony Hopkins (Tradition), becoming friends with another pope, Jonathan Pryce (Reform). (They are not popes at the same time; that's not how this works. Really, I did not know very much about popes.) The film works best when it's simply a two-hander where two men with opposing beliefs debate God and faith and organized religion and all that good stuff, where it feels like the stage play the screenplay is based on (Anthony McCarten wrote both). Flashbacks to Pryce's early life deepen the character (and offer Juan Minujín a chance to shine), but they did lose me a bit in Argentine history, and they throw off the pacing, not quite as well integrated as they could be. At over two hours, it does begin to feel its length eventually and after being surprisingly engaged at first, I felt that engagement lessen over time. But with its light comic touch, I really did appreciate this fascinating, insightful look at two men of faith, much more layered religious characters than I typically see in film. B/B+

For Sama: Waad al-Khateab and Edward Watts chronicle life in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War, and Waad narrates the documentary as a message to her daughter, Sama. For Sama is literally...for Sama. But it's also for the rest of the world to see what it is like to live in a city with constant airstrikes, where children are killed daily, where the regime massacres citizens. While it's a love letter to Sama, it also feels like an explanation for bringing her into this world. Waad flashes back and forth in time, putting her daughter's life into context so she knows where she came from. She makes heartbreaking observations like the songs at her wedding being louder than the sounds of the bombs outside, which is in essence the thesis statement of the film. Even in devastating tragedy, there can still be beauty and joy. In fact, there must. The citizens of Aleppo struggle with the decision to leave their homes, but how can they abandon the ones who stay behind? Should they not stay and fight? Help the thousands of wounded? The film is not only a love letter to Sama but a love letter to Aleppo and its people. Waad's narration and construction of a narrative create a personal, intimate, emotional account bolstered by an effective score and cinematography that ranges from beautiful cityscapes to confessional breakdowns. The baby Sama is fucking cute, folks. The documentary For Sama is fucking great, folks. B+/A-

The Burial of Kojo: The Burial of Kojo, the first Ghanaian film to premiere to Netflix, is well worth your eighty minutes. While it didn't fully engage me on a narrative level, I loved falling under its spell, immediately hooked by the opening narration of A Character Telling a Story, which is my fucking JAM. The opening scenes introduce the magical realism vibe of the film with an old blind man claiming to come from an in-between world where everything is upside-down, and sure enough, this film features some excellent upside-down cinematography. It features excellent right-side-up cinematography as well; it's generally pretty gorgeous. The middle section turns back to regular realism, which I found less interesting, but then it got back to the fun fantastical shit, though it was never as much as I wanted. Magical realism always frustrates me, but when I look at the story as a whole, this movie does do it pretty well. It's a simple story, a fable, with an evil black crow and a sacred white bird. That sort of thing. It looks incredible for apparently being shot on a micro-budget, and the score is wonderful, diverse instrumentation showcasing a variety of sounds throughout the film. Even if I didn't find this debut entirely satisfying, I'm absolutely curious to see what writer-director-composer Blitz Bazawule does next. B/B+

Single Slipper Size 7: I got a movie recommendation from my co-worker that was too intriguing to ignore, and since it was on Netflix, I checked it out as soon as I could. Single Slipper Size 7 features only one actor onscreen—Radhakrishnan Parthiban, who also wrote, directed, and produced the film, earning it a spot in the Asia Book of Records and India Book of Records. The entire movie takes place in a police interrogation room as Parthiban is being questioned about a murder. The thing is, this guy is quite dramatic, engaging in theatrical reenactments enhanced by voiceover and sound effects, and you start to wonder whether he's even telling the truth. But why would he be confessing to a murder he didn't commit? Well, strap yourselves in for a rambly-ass, wild ride as you try to put together the pieces of his story. At times, the conceit comes off as distractingly gimmicky, with awkwardly showy camera angles to spice up the visuals or awkwardly obvious camera angles to avoid the sight of any other human being onscreen, even so much as a hand. But after a while, it's remarkable how strong the illusion is, the sense you feel that the policemen are there in the room with him even though you never see them. Parthiban's twisty tale remains mostly compelling throughout, though it could maybe have done with a little trimming; it sags a tiny bit occasionally and the repetition of certain plot points can feel, well, repetitive while at the same time adding to the intrigue because you're waiting to catch him in a contradiction and just figure out where the fuck the story is going. And by God, this fucker does pay off, and you realize he's been telling you where it was going the whole time. All in all, it could be a bit slicker, but, like Knives Out, it's a clever and socially conscious twist on the standard murder mystery format. Well played, Parthiban. B+

Rafiki: I had to watch Rafiki because when a country bans a movie, that just makes you want to watch the movie more, take that, Kenya. Rafiki is a tender star-crossed romance between the children of two political rivals in Nairobi. That's not the only thing crossing their stars, though—they're both girls, and homosexuality is not just taboo but literally illegal. It's just incredibly sweet to watch Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva softly connect, and the latter has simply amazing hair. They have to dance around their feelings in public, but in private, they can be themselves, and they make a nice repressed/wild pair. The colors and soundtrack offer a lively portrait of Nairobi, but you're always anxious that things will go south, and the third act is a bit rough, both emotionally and narratively. Overall, though, Kena/Ziki foreverrrrrrrrrr. B+

Next up: a bunch of movies! It's just another bunch of movies until we hit the pandemic.
Tags: making the grade, movies
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