Shin Ultraman, Country Gold, and Give Me Pity! are screening as part of the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs from July 14 – August 3.
Shin Ultraman is the second Toho Pictures reboot of classic characters to be written by Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, with a third film planned. And Shin Ultraman immediately comes across as a sibling to the 2016 Shin Godzilla, with its jumpy editing and focus on government bureaucracy in the face of Kaiju mayhem. While Anno did not return to direct this re-imagining of the popular ’60s character (he did pen the script), Shinji Higuchi’s work on this is more than capable, if not slightly less polished than what Anno did with Godzilla.
I had more fun during the first 12-minute set piece of Shin Ultraman than I had watching anything in the last three $200 million Hollywood Godzilla movies — and this was made for a small fraction of the cost. The tone of this film is simply more palatable to my tastes, I suppose. The U.S. films, particularly Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is grey and dour and takes itself far too seriously. Shin Ultraman is written in such a way that the interior stakes of the world are taken seriously by the characters, but it is filmed as a campy homage. And for its budget, it provides an impressive array of visual effects.
The film is not perfect. The second act lags, and overall entertainment value hinges on how one takes to the campy tone. But it is hard to deny that the film is visually impressive. Plus, the score kicks ass.
Shin Ultraman: B+
Mickey Reece’s Agnes (which also played Fantasia) is a riff on the exorcism film which takes a sharp turn midway through, essentially becoming a different movie altogether. It is a turn I struggled with, given how effective I found the first half of the film, but that struggle was a worthwhile experience in and of itself. Reece took a chance. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was a nice surprise.
Reece’s Country Gold is similarly inscrutable, albeit for different reasons. It takes the formula of a hangout movie and warps it into an occasionally surreal, occasionally tangential rumination on legacy and purpose. These might not be the most novel themes, especially for an entertainment industry narrative, but Reece makes it an engaging ride.
Troyal Brooks (Reece) is an up-and-coming country western singer. Out of the blue he receives a letter from his idol, the aging George Jones (Ben Hall), asking him to come down to Nashville for dinner and some drinks. This premise starts like a CMT My Dinner with Andre and transforms into a quietly tense exercise in temptation, storytelling, and petty squabbling.
It doesn’t all hang together cohesively, but individual moments are interesting tonally, and the performances are consistently good. Hall, in particular, shines as the country music veteran. Hall played a reverend in Agnes, and I thoroughly enjoyed that role. Here, he plays a much different character and brings the same quality of performance. The man has range.
Country Gold: B-
Give Me Pity!
Writer-director Amanda Kramer has two films premiering in the same year, both of which played Fantasia as a de facto double feature. While I think Please Baby Please is the superior of the two, Give Me Pity! is its own beast. It is a glossy, glittery television special put on by one Sissy St. Claire (Sophie von Haselberg). A variety show from hell, St. Claire’s songs and skits, all dedicated to the pursuit of “making it” in entertainment, are tinged with unsettling glitches. Smeared images. Sudden onsets of discomfort on St. Claire’s face. A strange figure watching from just off-stage.
The horror of Give Me Pity! does not fully coalesce. As the surreal moments bleed into reality, and St. Claire starts to lose her composure, the unease builds. But it never gives way to the horror that it hints at from the beginning. Instead, it lends itself to something more akin to tragedy. St. Claire is a character dead set on fame, and this TV special is a facade built around that dream, a screen blocking out the reality that fame does not equate to success or satisfaction. There is an intimation that her dedication to self-improving her image has alienated her from meaningful relationships in her life. It is a fatal flaw resulting in the downfall which we witness on screen during the unsettling musical numbers and sketches.
I’m still not sure how the creepy man in the corner fits into this equation. But Give Me Pity uses its abstract qualities to create a disquieting tension, allowing von Haselberg’s performance to slowly crescendo into debilitating mental anguish. This leads to the most compelling moment in the film, an extended monologue St. Claire delivers telling the story of her childhood friend and a dress that divided them. Both Give Me Pity and Please Baby Please are in one sense dedicated to examining the roles people perform and how those roles diverge from their inner selves. Between the two films, Kramer is able to form two entirely different conversations from this theme. Both are impressive in their own right.
Give Me Pity: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)