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Shin Godzilla (2016) 👍

Equal parts of man versus monster and man versus bureaucracy in this low-budget high-quality remake. Though googly-eyed, the monster is more alien, more menacing, and more destructive than the recent American version. So is the Japanese bureaucracy, which is, in the end, a bigger threat to the country than Godzilla will ever be.

The Year Earth Changed (2021) 👍

A soaring orchestral score. Drone shots of empty squares and promenades. Surveillance camera footage of animals running amok. Stuck onto this skeleton are a few soundbites of scientists explaining humanity’s inhumanity towards wildlife; redundant, but required to elevate this from a long Youtube video into a… long Youtube video with a Message.

Our towns (2021) 👍

Drone shots of oversaturated greenery zipping accross the screen to the rythm of athmospheric EDM” could describe almost any documentary made in the last decade, but “Our towns” has a note of localism that’s pleasing to my mind. The movie promises us stories of eight towns across the country that failed and/or bounced back. That is a tall order for a single town, life being complicated and things not falling neatly in line for a comprehensible narrative. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t even try to spin a story, giving us instead a few lessons: that local newspapers are important for the life of a community; that people want to live in neighborhoods from which they can walk to work, school, shops, and nature; that despite your best efforts, a decision from up above (to close a factory, move an interstate, etc) can ruin a town; and that small towns owe their prosperity — if they prosper at all — to the people who could have been anywhere else but chose to be there.

True, there is nothing there you wouldn’t know from reading Jane Jackobs, A Pattern Language, or even @WrathOfGnon tweets. But maybe just maybe this movie being on HBO and coming from a writer of The Atlantic means those ideas are seeping into circles that have so far preferred centralized planning.

Kong: Skull Island (2017) 👍

Like Godzilla but with a better story, better scenery, better acting, and, yes, better monsters. A thoroughly fun movie that The Guardian critic hated. What’s not to love?

Godzilla (2014) 👍

Having babies and toddlers in the house takes you out of the popular culture loop for a while, so I completely missed this challenger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe1 when it came out. But now that the fourth installment is available for streaming and one of the said toddlers is of age to watch a PG-13 movie (i.e. almost 9), HBO Max is finally paying itself off.

Most Japanese versions of Gojira/Godzilla are in their hearts cinéma bureaucratique — you come for the thrill of monsters destroying Tokyo, you stay for the drama of humans battling red tape. There is no deeper layer to this American version — you come for the monsters and stay for the monsters, and you skip all the dialogue unless you’re into cringing. If there is a subtext to the movie it is this: most of the protagonists are highly competent US marines who fail to prevent giant monsters from destroying the liberal mecca that is San Francisco.

The monster battles truly are fun, though.

  1. The MonsterVerse, apparently, which comes with its own official logo and everything. Surely there was also a slide deck full of charts pointing upwards 🚀 

The Tree of Life 👍

Samsara with a bit of a backstory and Jessica Chastain — perfect for the nights when you’re feeling pretentious1 but don’t have four hours to spend on the Snyder Cut.

Directed by Terrence Malick, 2011.

  1. Whereby I use “feeling pretentious” to mean more poetically inclined than usual, to the point of resembling a film student, liberal arts major or, God forbid, a creative writing professor, who for the most part don’t only have occasional bouts of pretentiousness but are, let’s be honest here, full-blown snobs. Indeed, the divisive reviews of this movie on IMDB map perfectly to the reviewer’s pretentiousness index on the day they viewed it (as in, if someone goes to see a Woody Allen movie and instead stumbles into The Tree of Life wouldn’t you expect them to leave a bad review, not being in the right mind set; also: of course the Cannes jury gave it their top award, since being in France AND going to a festival are both major pretentiousness boosters). 

The Undoing 👎

A mini-series is usually the better format for a book adaptation than a movie. Not so with HBO’s The Undoing. The stretched-out plot and meaningless flashbacks just barely fill out the six hours allotted. Twenty years ago it would have been an enjoyable 100-minute psycho-drama, also staring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, and Donald Sutherland. With less Upper East Side lifestyle porn, perhaps, but also with fewer unnecessary scenes of violence.

It is difficult to understand why things didn’t work out, because the first episode — easily the best one of the show — had such promise. Squeeze the other five into Acts II and III, and you would get a much more engaging story. Sadly, it is only the three hundred million dollar flops that get do-overs these days.

The Social Network 👍

Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get Silicon Valley — case in point — so it is a small miracle that his screenplay about (The) Facebook’s origins works. The Sorkinized version of Mark Zuckerberg bears little resemblance to the real person, if old footage is anything to go by. Yet even this aloof and opportunistic cipher is more human than the soulless privacy-destroying corporate robot that the kind of people who like Sorkin — let’s call them New York Times readers — now see when they look at Zuckerberg.

Much has happened in the 10 years since the movie came out, the least of which is Facebook’s valuation going from $25 billion to $770 billion. I imagine a great deal of the story being depicted differently if it were shot today, including but not limited to the experience of the women involved, the entitlement of most of the protagonists, and Peter Thiel. In fact, with all those culture bombs strung out it’s unlikely it would even see the light of day in 2021, at least not as a David Fincher feature film. In 2010 it had felt too soon for a movie about an internet company that was barely out of infancy. From 2021 hindsight, making it so early seems to have been the right call.

Chernobyl 👍

Chernobyl became a last-minute entrant for the best show on TV of the 2010s, but it is apparent now that the 2020s are its decade. From governmental incompetence to criminal cover-ups to the bravery of regular humans, the parallels between a 1980s nuclear meltdown and a 2020s societal meltdown draw themselves. Being an 80s baby, I can only count my blessings that nuclear fallout isn’t self-replicating.

But I do hope I’m still around when Wuhan comes out.

The Mandalorian, Season 2 👍

The Mandalorian is still a series of fantastic action pieces connected by enough plot to make it interesting without requiring you to build your own crazy wall. It’s the good kind of mindless, now with some old favorites.

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