From the start, it’s obvious that this is not a regular Kaiju movie. The genre, in which gigantic beasts à la Godzilla lay waste to cities and swaths of countryside, is not known for restraint, but “Shin Ultraman” is completely, unpredictably off the wall.
Captain Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima, from the radically different “Drive My Car”) leads a task force dedicated to fighting the big monsters that turn up with clockwork regularity. “For some reason, Kaiju only appear in Japan,” someone quips about the creatures’s absence elsewhere in the world. But even this elite squad is flabbergasted when a mysterious helmeted giant clad in a superhero-like red and silver bodysuit shows up. Called Ultraman (a popular character who has been the subject of many iterations since its introduction in 1966), the newcomer helps the overwhelmed team battle aliens like Mefilas (Koji Yamamoto).
Both a reboot and a riff, “Shin Ultraman,” which was directed by Shinji Higuchi and written by Hideaki Anno (the pair also collaborated on “Shin Godzilla” in 2016), is a surreal trip. It’s hard to oversell the eye-popping invention and droll humor on display here, but it’s Higuchi’s mise en scène that stands out, packed with odd angles and seemingly arbitrary shots, as when a character opens a computer file and the movie cuts to her feet under her desk. Shiro Sagisu’s score is equally bonkers and disruptive, incorporating 1960s pop, thrash riffs, chamber suites and jazzy noodlings. It all amounts to pure joy.
Chances are you haven’t heard of Deborah Install’s “A Robot in the Garden” (2015), unless you live in Japan, where the novel has been adapted into a radio play, a stage musical and now this charming kid-friendly movie.
Ken (Kazunari Ninomiya) has a terminal case of arrested development, whiling away his days playing elaborate virtual-reality games and avoiding any hint of household work. One day, a rusty, taped-up robot turns up in the garden, offering its name as Tang. Shortly thereafter, Ken’s fed-up wife, Emi (Hikari Mitsushima), kicks him out of their house. So he sets out for Atobit Systems, the company that manufactured Tang, to trade that old model for a brand-new one, which he will then give to Emi to get back in her graces.
The latest from the prolific director Takahiro Miki (“The Door Into Summer”) does not revolutionize the cute-robot genre, but it is very effective. Naturally, Ken will change for the best, thanks to Tang — whose mysterious origin and initial purpose are at the heart of the story — but this utter predictability is a feature, not a bug, and is embraced as such by the film. Young viewers are likely to clamor for a toy version of the adorable bot, while their parents are more likely to be interested in the movie’s awfully believable near-future, in which delivery drones crisscross the sky and robots are absolutely everywhere in our daily life.
‘Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out’
When the Levan family moves to a quaint Western town, the teenage Itsy (the excellent Emma Tremblay) is not especially pleased: She is now living in the middle of nowhere, plus being singled out as the new kid is never fun. Maybe that’s why she immediately connects with her new classmate Calvin (Jacob Buster, a charmer bound to resurface in bigger-budget projects), who is ostracized as the local weirdo. Calvin is a heartthrob in nerd clothing — more specifically in a spacesuit, which he is prone to wear to school — and is on a quest to find the parents (Will Forte and Elizabeth Mitchell) he hasn’t seen in 10 years. He is convinced they were taken by aliens one fateful night and has been searching the skies ever since. Itsy pretends to befriend him for a journalism project, though it’s clear she’s actually taken by Calvin’s quirky sincerity, and perhaps even by his far-fetched story about extraterrestrial creatures secretly visiting Earth whenever a certain comet gets close.
Jake Van Wagoner’s film is a throwback to 1980s family-friendly fare, and it nicely captures the formula’s basic elements, down to the presence of a smart-aleck little boy (Itsy’s brother, Evan, played by Kenneth Cummins), an unironic embrace of the cutesy and the cheesy in equal proportions and, perhaps most important, a general good nature.
Carl (Adam Weber) lives in his grandparents’ rec-room-like basement, seems to survive on power bars and takeout, and watches old black-and-white movies on an ancient-looking TV set. The only other living presence in that den is Vetro (voiced by Kory Karam), an animatronic head with enormous blue eyes sitting on Carl’s desk. A computer programmer, Carl is ambitious: “You are to become human,” he informs his creation. To that end, Vetro has been endowed with the ability to generate “new expansions.” In other words, he is sentient and can upgrade himself. One of his first moves is to give himself a new “multilayered emotional matrix,” and it doesn’t take long for Vetro to exhibit somewhat cunning traits — he can be both obsequious and creepy.
The writer-director Christopher Morvant’s most distinctive spin on the thriving A.I. genre was to make Vetro a cartoonish animatronic/puppet character that looks goofy yet comes across as unsettling, especially since Morvant often shows him in startling close-ups. The movie is, admittedly, overlong, especially since it’s essentially a talkathon between Carl and Vetro, and the writing is not quite strong enough to sustain the more complex philosophical issues it raises. But “Life Cycle” does have a few surprises in store, and Morvant’s sui generis world nimbly juxtaposes technologies that feel pulled from completely different eras. Pretty good for a movie shot in a garage in a month.
‘Dry Ground Burning’
Set in an impoverished Sol Nascente, in Brazil, Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós’s film is tough to categorize. “Dry Ground Burning” follows the activities of a women’s gang, led by Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), that steals oil and resells it as gas to groups of bikers. Add to that mix the re-entry into society of Chitara’s half sister, Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), who is newly released from prison. In conventional hands, these could be an action-packed thriller’s starting point. Pimenta and Queirós go down a completely different road, both in form and in content.
We are in a dystopian pamphlet targeting the far-right policies of Brazil’s authoritarian former president Jair Bolsonaro, which were devastating for the poor, the minorities and the outcasts at the movie’s heart. All of this is put together with a documentarylike matter-of-factness, increased by the fact that the cast is made up of non- or semiprofessional actors. When scenes set during, say, a raucous bus trip or a religious ceremony hypnotically go on and on as if in real time, you might wonder if Frederick Wiseman had suddenly gone to Brazil. Tip: Go with the flow — you can’t rush life, politics or this film.