Category Archives: Coming-of-age

“American Animals” Movie Review

This is likely going to turn into a scenario where the people who keep demanding something new or innovative in cinema will reject this movie as “too arthouse” or “too weird.” If that happens, that means the filmmakers are on the right track for a solid career in the industry. This highly unconventional heist thriller premiered as part of the official competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, getting picked up by both The Orchard and the newly formed distributor MoviePass Ventures. Entering a limited theatrical release on June 1st, the film expanded into more theaters and has managed to gross nearly $3 million at the box office. Written and directed by Bart Layton, the film marks his first foray into narrative features, following his breakout with the 2012 documentary The Imposter. Layton virtually expands the elements on atmospheric reenactments from that film to feature-length here. Based on a crazy true story, the film follows 4 college students- Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk -attending Transylvania University in Kentucky. The college library there is home to several priceless antique books, including two filled with very famous animal paintings by John James Audubon. In the 2003-2004 academic year, for reasons that still remain unclear, the men start joking about robbing the library blind. But they soon become serious about it, researching crime movies for help on their endeavor, setting up potential buyers for the books, and ultimately get ready to pull off one of the most daring heists in recent U.S. history. Movies centered on heists are hardly anything new in cinema these days, there are just so many of them. Any time a new one comes out, they have to REALLY work hard to impress me or stand out from the crowd in any way. And a former documentarian deciding to take on the story of 4 privileged white dudes pulling off a particularly stupid crime on a college campus? Interesting angle, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’ll be anything special or memorable. And just because it premiered and competed at Sundance or any other festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it will always be worth the trouble of seeing in theaters, let alone worth reviewing. So take that as a sign of how much I liked Amercian Animals; I really had a lot of fun watching this movie. And trust me when I say that no reader here has ever seen any film quite like this in their whole life. Bart Layton may be working primarily with professional actors, but that doesn’t stop him from using his docudrama expertise to his advantage. While most of the film is told in a narrative fashion, it is directly followed by talking head interviews from the real-life subjects. They offer unique reflections on how everything went down, from first meeting one another to the sweat-inducing heist itself. But rather than just have them explain everything exactly as it happened, the filmmakers smartly decide to just let them provide more context as to their actions and motivations. Even better, each of them remembers certain scenarios or actions differently than others, providing both a slick comedic edge and some unreliable narrator shenanigans. Admittedly, it’s a little frustrating because it’s still left unclear why these 4 men did what they did. But I definitely enjoyed watching Layton try to add more thematic depth to the story. Errol Morris would be proud. Agents, studios, and cinephiles all need to start paying more attention to the 4 main actors in this movie. Jared Abrahamson and Blake Jenner do great in their respective roles, but Evan Peters and Barry Keoghan play Warren and Spencer, the ringleaders of the operation, and do particularly fantastic work together. Keoghan, who had a wonderful breakout last year with Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, plays Spencer as a decent, naive kid who seems unsure of what he wants in life, a quality many can relate to. Peters, meanwhile, is a total revelation as Warren. This is wholly different from his turn as Quicksilver in the new X-Men movies. He’s unpredictable, brazenly entitled, manipulative, profane, but also spiteful for no reason. His flawed logic for stealing the antique books is both insane and tragic, painting himself as more than just a sociopathic narcissist. It becomes disorderly and honestly somewhat unsettling when he becomes convinced that he can be just like a smooth criminal from the movies. From a purely technical point of view, there is an amazing amount of skill and confidence behind the camera. Ole Bratt Birkeland’s widescreen cinematography skillfully captures each environment and tone of each scene with grace. In some of the students’ imagined scenarios’, it’s all taken on slick, dynamic single-take shots. Other instances, like when things don’t seem to be going according to plan, it becomes very unsteady and shaky, at times a little disorienting. It also nails the atmosphere, which becomes increasingly darker and more hard-edged as the film goes along. The editing is a collaborative effort between Nick Fenton, Chris Gill, Luke Dunkley, and Julian Hart. It uses very precise cuts, moving back and forth from the acting portrayal to the real criminals themselves. For example, in one scene, Spencer begins a sentence, only to be finished by the real Spencer. It also works to create interesting visual contradictions between the subjects. A few hard cuts elicited a good laugh or two out of me. The musical score here is composed and conducted by Anne Nikitin, who had previously worked with Layton on The Imposter. The score is decidedly modern and appropriately moody for the material at hand, utilizing a number of synthesizers and severely low strings that would (hopefully) bring Johann Johannson back to life. She also uses some neat percussive instruments to wring out the tension in the viewer and softer electric guitar strums to provide an emotional through line. In some ways, it felt like a neverending crescendo as we watch the situation get more and more complicated. There are also a number of obscure songs from bygone rock and folk artists. It’s weird to say that songs by both Mobb Deep and The Doors fit perfectly in the same movie, but that’s how it is. Just like the original tracks, at times it’s playful and others it’s dead serious. I feel like this has a broader appeal than most audiences might think at first. Regular moviegoers will get to see an unconventional heist thriller, cinephiles will get to pick apart the various movie references laying about, and documentary fans will be satisfied with its taught approach. In other directors’ hands, this could have felt extremely forced or unappealing. Thankfully, with enough dramatic heft to match the stylish fun presented throughout, American Animals blends fact and fiction seamlessly into unique entertainment. Bart Layton is highly talented as a documentary filmmaker, but this shows he’s just as confident and comfortable with a narrative feature. Let’s hope both he and Evan Peters have amazing careers ahead of them.

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“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” Movie Review

Watching this movie as a grown man in a theater full of young boys and girls is roughly equivalent to my inner child fighting my older self for dominant opinion mindset. And trust me, that is a sight I would not like to visualize for my readers. This sci-fi actioner was released worldwide on June 22nd, 2018, almost exactly 3 years after the first Jurassic World. Despite dropping nearly 60% at the box office in its second weekend, the sequel has already accumulated north of $935 million worldwide. After massive success with the first film, Collin Trevorrow decided not to return for the second go-around, and instead developing his doomed vision for Star Wars Episode IX. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of acclaimed movies such as A Monster Calls and The Impossible, stepped into the director’s chair in his place. Interestingly, Bayona was executive producer Steven Spielberg’s first choice for the original film in the new series but declined. Trevorrow and Derek Connolly are still involved as co-writers, though. Set 3 years after the catastrophic events of the first Jurassic World, the world governments have all elected to let the cloned dinosaurs on Isla Nubar die on their own. When a massive volcanic eruption is imminent, Owen Grady and Claire Dearing team up with Benjamin Lockwood, John Hammond’s former partner, to try and save as many species as possible. From there, it becomes a race against time as the dinosaurs reach their second extinction, and it becomes a mystery who’s meeting whose ends. The first Jurassic Park, released back in 1993, is one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. No matter how many times I watch it, nothing will ever be able to wash out the awe, terror, and magic of that Spielberg classic. 25 years later, and it’s kind of hard for me to believe it’s become such a big franchise. The first three attempts at following it up were fun in parts but felt uninspired and unnecessary. When I read that they were trying to approach this sequel as more or a horror movie or thriller, I got a little more excited as that was the foundation of the original film. And while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is arguably the closest in spirit to the first one, there’s still almost no justification to keep this thing going. However, I will grant that there was one particular scene that showed there’s still a bit of power left in the gas tank. I don’t really consider it to be a spoiler, so take it as you will. But when the human characters are leaving Isla Nubar, there’s a lone Brachiosaurus standing on the pier watching them. And we watch helplessly as this creature succumbs to the volcanic fumes and lava, hearing its horrible cries of agony and dying loneliness. That moment was unexpectedly dark, haunting, and brilliantly directed, showing a small ounce of human empathy in a series primarily focused on animals long gone. Aside from that though, what’s left are thinly-veiled, underdeveloped threads about the ethics of cloning, animal rights, and the right to die. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return from the first movie, and they’re still mostly charming. Although it feels like phoning it in, they do share some nice chemistry in a few moments. The new characters were an incredibly mixed bag for me. Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Rafe Spall, and Ted Levine never evolve out of there archetypes: a thankless nerd, an attractive doctor, a scheming businessman, and a grizzled mercenary, respectively. I’ll give credit to James Cromwell as the old, dying Benjamin Lockwood and newcomer Isabella Sermon as his granddaughter Maisie. Both did their best to contribute something new to the series, even if it didn’t always work out. And don’t get excited about Jeff Goldblum returning as Dr. Ian Malcolm; he only appears in 2 scenes, max. Meanwhile, the technical aspects are perhaps the only thing about this franchise that has consistently evolved or improved. While this film is heavy on using CGI, with somewhere over 2000 VFX shots total, the cinematography by Bayona’s regular collaborator Óscar Faura provides some lowkey backlighting in practical shots. These are directly contrasted by epic, swooping shots when we’re on the island, successfully capturing the scope and scale of the chaos. Combined with Bernat Vilaplana’s frantic but mostly smooth editing, there are a handful of entertaining action or chase scenes. The moment when our characters are running side-by-side with the dinosaurs to the shoreline utilizes both of the aforementioned tools to great effect. It is easily the most thrilling moment and second-best in the whole movie. To his credit, Bayona actually does show some skill behind the camera, ultimately feeling like his own style. Michael Giacchino, one of the most prolific and in-demand composers in Hollywood, returns to write and conduct the musical score for this sequel. Like its predecessor, he inverts many of John Williams’ classic themes from Jurassic Park to some success. Stirring strings and rousing low horns are often undercut by a large vocal chorus, giving a grand feeling to this adventure. And yet, he’s still somehow able to find a bit of the magic from that original by doing his damnedest to inspire awe in the ears. Outside of the soundtrack and fun effects, though, there’s little to no reason to watch this movie. Despite the promise of a new director at the helm, this comes off as a neutered, cold sequel that studios push out of the gate with zero motivation except for profit. There are kernels of good ideas in here; with recent advancements in cloning science, the ethics of bringing back an extinct species feels ripe with potential. But sadly, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom serves as a reminder why this series should have died long ago. Just come to terms with why it should have never become a franchise and give J.A. Bayona a project worth spending money to see. The humans in charge of this should have quit while they were ahead, 65 million years ago. Ironically, Universal Pictures has become to this franchise what John Hammond was like with the attraction in Jurassic Park. Quoth Jeff Goldblum in the original movie, “You were so busy thinking about if you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should.”

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“Paddington 2” Movie Review

I feel like I’m a little late on this one, but I’m glad I got to check it out. Because, quite frankly, I really needed this movie today. And hopefully, everyone else feels the exact same way. This family adventure film was released in the U.K. on November 10th, 2017, before hitting the United States on January 12th, 2018. It grossed over $226 million, only slightly less than its predecessor, but went on to become the highest-rated film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. (I’m not even making that up) Following the massive success of the first film in 2015, the sequel was set up for release at the Weinstein Company. Following the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, however, both producer David Heyman and British distributor Studio Canal looked for another American studio to handle a movie intended for children and families. Thankfully, Warner Bros. Pictures picked it up for $32 million and the film was officially saved. About a year after the previous installment, Paddington Bear, a kind-hearted anthropomorphic bear from Darkest Peru, has settled with the human Brown family in London. Approaching his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, he desires to get her an old and expensive pop-up book of London. However, the book is stolen by Phoenix Buchanan, a washed-up actor, and Paddington is subsequently framed and wrongfully thrown in prison for it. Now the Browns, Paddington, and his fellow inmates must find the book and clear the bear’s name in time for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. I only watched the first Paddington movie back in December, and I loved it. It was not only one of the biggest cinematic surprises I had in a long while but I genuine regretted missing it in theaters. Even though I wasn’t entirely familiar with the late Michael Bond’s hand-drawn children’s books, it wasn’t hard at all for me to connect with the raincoat-wearing bear who loves his marmalade. Yet again, I missed the opportunity to catch the sequel in January, only getting the opportunity to finally watch it on an international plane. And, hand to God, I totally feel bad about it. Because Paddington 2 is one of the best family films I have ever seen in my life. I’m being completely serious here. And maybe a lot of that has to do with the fantastic timing of this movie’s release. Under normal circumstances, a studio movie about a talking bear acting extremely British would have been simply seen as “cute” and “fun” before being indefinitely put to the cinematic sidelines. But because the last 18 months under a new leader of the free world have made so many ordinary people feel so miserable on the daily, (This critic included) director and co-writer Paul King could not have put this out into the world at a better point in time. We needed a piece of accessible media, cinema, to remind everyone that “If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Granted, they couldn’t have known all of the horrible things that would have been done or said under the Trump administration, but that’s beside the point. It acts as a superpowered antidote to actions such as Brexit and the travel ban, as well as the xenophobia that inspired both. Administering said antidote is Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington Bear, whose charm will immediately win viewers over. Think of him like a British version of Mr. Rogers; he’s kind, well-behaved, gives everyone compliments, and never forgets to use his manners. While the two children of the Brown family aren’t particularly memorable, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville do great work as the parents. Both have their own insecurities but are still caring and try to help guide Paddington through the real world at every turn. Peter Capaldi, Julia Walters, and Jim Broadbent all turn in fun supporting roles that give more perspective to the silly plot. But to me, the true scene-stealers are both Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles McGinty and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, respectively. While Gleeson is a rough prison cook with a heart of gold, Grant gives arguably the best performance of his career as a selfish, washed up actor trying to respark his fame. You can tell he’s having an absolute blast hamming it up as the villain, and there’s chatter that he could break into Best Supporting Actor. That’s no joke. And from a pure filmmaking point of view, Paul King is inspired with the way he tells this story. The steady, fluid camerawork by Erik Wilson does excellent work following the ever-moving plot. In fact, some scenes are planted with unique symmetry to highlight what’s important for the moment. Combined with the vibrant and dynamic color scheme, and you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that Wes Anderson made this movie instead. It sure feels like one of his more tame, fast-paced comedies except much more family-friendly. Plus the editing by Mark Everson and Edgar Wright collaborator Jonathan Amos is frenetic but never disorienting. Each cut feels appropriately planned and some shots are even cut together to create a sort of long-take montage. It also helps that the CGI work brings Paddington to life so convincingly. Having been highly prolific yet underrated the last few years, Dario Marinelli comes in as the replacement for composing the musical score. His score is a diverse one, with several tracks that contrast each other nicely yet still retain the innocence of the tone. Case in point, the opening track, when we’re introduced to Windsor Garden, is jolly and filled with life. The composition has upbeat percussion such as xylophones and high-hats running well alongside the strings. Then, another theme is a more serene piano melody that’s calming and nice to listen to but feels less fun or jovial than other tracks. In keeping with the happy spirits of the film, the filmmakers decide to end the film creatively. While a wonderful hand-drawn animation plays over onscreen, Harry Belafonte’s song “Jump in the Line” can be heard and acts as a cute dance number. So yeah, all of that is one long way of saying that we needed this movie now more than ever. In a world where so many awful things are seen happening on the national news on a regular basis, here’s a little bubble of escapism and happiness that reminds everyone to look for the goodness in them. And somehow, it encourages us to find it. Knowing exactly what it needs to do and how to do it, Paddington 2 is a warm slice of feel-good, life-affirming cinema that all families must watch. In essence, this movie is a ginormous bear hug both for our bodies and our souls. We may not deserve it, but it’s what we all require right now, to let us know that it’s not the end of the world.

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“Henry V” Movie Review

Time for me to tackle the granddaddy of all modern literature and storytelling: William Shakespeare. But where to go? The overly stylized dreg of Baz Luhrmann or the dated drama of Lawrence Olivier? My favorite comes somewhere in between. This British historical medieval drama was originally released in the U.K. on October 6th, 1989, coming stateside a little later. The film managed to just barely make back its $9 million budget, supported by some of the best reviews from that year. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, who had built a reputation in British theatre, the adaptation had been something of a passion project for him. Despite him having no previous experience with cinema, producer Bruce Sharman and the BBC agreed to back it for at least £3 million to start. In addition to the titular play, he also included elements from both parts of its predecessor Henry IV. Based on the stage play of the same name by William Shakespeare, Branagh stars as Henry V, the newly appointed King of England. Set in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry and his court are in bloody conflict with the French royalty for the sovereign throne of both England and France. With a rough but loyal army that’s a mere fraction of their enemy’s forces, the King sets off on a campaign through the Fench countryside in an effort to defy all the odds and show his worth. Here’s a confession for everybody: I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, always have been. So whenever a filmmaker wants to adapt one of his plays into a movie, I get a little excited but also cautious. Not all of his works have made for great movies, and the upcoming Ophelia, a version of Hamlet from the perspective of the main female character, looks like it’s trying too hard. And it’s pretty clear that some of Lawrence Olivier’s films from the 1940’s and 1950’s have not aged well. That being said, I’ve always had an affinity for Kenneth Branagh’s attempts at the source material, this being the first of 5 adaptations from the enigmatic playwright. And Henry V isn’t just my favorite of his, but quite possibly my favorite Shakespeare play of all time. What I love about it isn’t just the amazing dialogue that should come to be expected of this man’s work. It’s the simple, effective idea that Branagh understands both this story and the titular character so well, you’d swear Shakespeare’s ghost reached out and whispered to him. In any other director’s hands, we’d probably have gotten a film that lionizes Henry whilst ignoring the carnage and conquest left in his wake. And although it does portray him in a mostly positive light, we also see the internal struggle for respect among his peers and the immense weight this war carries on his shoulders. He has to be careful not to give privilege to men he once was friends with. One great moment sees the King sneakily investigating the state of his soldiers and contemplating all of the burdens he must carry. Sure, he had to fight for his right to the throne, but he also has to prove himself as just a man, and that’s the most human thing anyone can do. Kenneth Branagh has had a lot of interesting roles over his career, but he came swinging out of the gate with his Oscar-nominated lead performance here. With a powerful voice that carries across fields, he delivers an innumerable amount of monologues and dialogue exchanges with complete control. And he doesn’t mess around; when the French court sends a herald demanding surrender, he proclaims, “I pray thee take my former answer back. Bid them achieve me than sell my bones!” Another standout would be his ex-wife Emma Thompson as Katherine, the French King’s daughter. The scenes in which she attempts to learn English provide a nice bit of comedy to ease the tension, in true Shakespeare fashion. He also collects a great ensemble to assist him, many of whom have a background in Shakspearean theatre. These include Dame Judi Dench as a distressed common innkeeper, a young Christian Bale as a luggage boy in battle, Sir Drek Jacobi as the narrating Chorus, Ian Holm as a moralistic Welsh officer in Henry’s army, Brian Blessed as the King’s rousing and loyal uncle, and Paul Scofield as the weary King of France. Meanwhile, Branagh also proves to be incredibly skilled and distinctive behind the camera as in front. With the help of cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan, we are able to see the full scale of the King’s European campaign. Many scenes are done on static long takes, especially one near the end of the film that really captures the powerful consequences of conquest. We can see the gritty style of the film come through in the hazy mud and faces soaked with blood. Michael Bradsell’s editing is smart, knowing exactly when to cut and where to give pause. However, one of the biggest stars of the film has to be Phyllis Dalton, whose costume design deservedly won her an Academy Award. Like her work on Lawrence of Arabia, it’s range is wide, it’s period-accurate and detailed to a fault. Combined with the wonderful production design, it really does feel like we’ve arrived in Medieval Europe. In the first of their many fruitful collaborations, Patrick Doyle composes and the epic musical score for Henry V. The first Shakespeare film to recorded using Dolby Audio, the score is performed by the City of Birmingham  Symphony Orchestra. The vast majority of tracks consist of strings, often moving between being intense for conflict, melancholic for more sobering moments, or rousing for ones of hope. There are also a number of woodwind pipes that infect certain moments, undercutting the serious tone for something far more subdued. There’s also a beautiful rendition of the Latin song Non nobis sung at the end of the Battle of Agincourt, hands down one of the best medieval battle sequences put to film. It is sung by Doyle himself and gradually evolves into a massive choir while a 4-minute tracking shot highlights the aftermath of the carnage. It still kind of amazes me that Kenneth Branagh was able to make this movie despite having zero prior expertise or experience. Most filmmakers may wait after a few projects to tackle a medieval epic, let alone one from the mind of William Shakespeare. But he went right in and, much like Henry himself, proved his worth to everyone around him. The BBC more or less blindly trusted his vision, and that trust has paid off. Henry V is a captivating literary tale of loyalty, victory, and conquest. It still boggles me that Branagh only 5 Shakespeare adaptations, and then went on to do other things. A part of me really wishes he could return to it while his career is still going, get back to his roots. Until that happens, I’m perfectly content with watching this film again, a completely underrated masterpiece.

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“The Incredibles” Movie Review

I’m seriously considering extending this New Year’s resolution over to next year because it lets me rewatch movies I love and then gives me an excuse to review them. Well, that and the long-awaited sequel is finally out in theaters so there’s little point in resisting the urge any longer. This computer-animated superhero film, the 6th overall feature produced by Pixar Animation Studios, was the closing night selection for the 2004 BFI London Film Festival before releasing in theaters on November 5th of that year. It proved a massive critical and commercial success, grossing nearly 7 times its $92 million budget worldwide along with 2 Academy Awards and 2 further nominations. This makes it the studio’s first animated feature to win 2 awards for one movie, soon to be followed in the years afterward. Written and directed by Brad Bird, the concept for the film first came up in the mid-90’s when he was struggling to break into the business after the commercial failure of his underrated The Iron Giant. The filmmaker was the first one not in Pixar’s initial core creative group to break into making an animated movie, only getting by on an old college friend named John Lasseter. This meant he had to hire his own team from scratch, which arguably gave him more artistic freedom. During the animation process, Studio Ghibli legend Hayao Miyazaki made a visit and voiced his support, as it was something he had never seen in an American animated film. Taking place in an alternate 1962, the story centers on a dysfunctional family of superpowered individuals named the Parrs. Following a number of lawsuits resulting from the collateral damage caused by their work, all of the living “supers” in the world are forced into retirement or hiding. The patriarch of the Parr family, Bob, formally the incredibly strong Mr. Incredible, is bored by his new life as an insurance adjuster and becomes excited when a mysterious woman named Mirage comes to him with an offer to use his powers again. But something doesn’t sit right with his housewife Helen, formerly the wide-stretching Elastigirl, and soon both she and her children are drawn into the job. If there are just 2 things I love watching consistently, it’s superheroes and Pixar. Put the both of them together, and you already have a recipe to make me at least moderately interested or entertained. I have seen The Incredibles more times than I can count over the years. In fact, I’m fairly positive that it was the first movie I ever saw in a theater. Depending on my mood, this usually switches places with the first Toy Story as my all-time favorite Pixar movie. And now that long-awaited and demanded sequel is FINALLY coming out, it seemed like a prime opportunity to give this modern classic a proper review. And once again, doing so has reaffirmed my love for it. Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about this film, more so than the extravagant action scenes, is the loving homages. Whilst the film was released right before the big boom of superhero movies, it functions more like a combination of old 1960’s spy thrillers and serial comic book adaptations from the 1940’s. Case in point, the heroes can only be recognized if they wear their secretive masks, not just their costumes. The fascinating thing is just how prescient Brad Bird was about superhero movie tropes, and how they would go on  in future genre films. Edna, the Incredibles’ main costume designer, constantly berates them on why it’s terrible to swear capes on the job. And the villain mocks his adversary, “You sly dog! You got me monologuing!” Bird may not have made a genre film before, but he understands it so well, giving him n edge over most live-action superhero operas. Let’s talk about the voice acting; everyone involved gives it their A-game and feels natural in their roles. Without Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, it’s hard to imagine Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl being as relatable as they are. Their chemistry is on point, from the overt sexual attraction they share to the nasty parental fights that their children are witnesses to. Speaking of children, Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox do great work as Dash and Violet, respectively. One is an insecure teenage girl with the ability to turn invisible and create force fields while the other is a young boy with the gift of super-speed. My favorite of the bunch might be Samuel L. Jackson as the ice-powered Lucius Best/Frozone. A far cry from his more vulgar live-action roles, the actor still gets to show off his effortless charisma through expert delivery of the fantastic dialogue. And then, there’s Jason Lee as the main villain Syndrome. We learn his motivations early on, and are able to inkle the slightest bit of sympathy for his ultimate game plan. And as far as the technical aspects go, The Incredibles is just such delightful pleasure to the eyes. This was the first Pixar film where all of the primary characters were human beings, as opposed to toys or underwater fish or extra-dimensional monsters. So there was a bit of challenge to adapting the computer-animated elements to something more tangible. Thankfully, the new technology they developed worked with flying colors, capturing the subtle dynamics in facial expressions and hair movements. The animation is also able to capture the diverse environments that the story takes us to. Whether it’s the dull color palette of the suburbs or the lush forest and shoreline of a mysterious island, nothing looks out of place. The way camera is able to fluidly follow moving bodies during the exciting action scenes is really marvelous. Capping it all off is Michael Giacchino’s amazing musical score, one of the best from cinema in the 2000’s. His first of 7 collaborations with the studio, the film was mostly recorded using old-fashioned analogue tapes, the same used back in the 1960’s. Utilizing a full symphonic orchestra, the brass section, especially the trumpet, is given main priority on the title tracks. The way they pierce sounds like an improvisational riff, made up as the adventure goes along. As chaotic as that may sound, it actually fits perfectly into the dynamic, near-unpredictable story that has been constructed. Also accompanying it is jazzy saxophones, which allow the two to feed off each other’s energy like the title superhero team. With an actual family at the heart and center of the film, there’s plenty to enjoy on both ends of the genetic spectrum. Kids will be entertained by all of the action and visuals, while adults will find appeal in its clever jokes and jabs at genre conventions. The Incredibles is matched in gorgeous animation only by its blazing originality. The more times I watch this movie, the more I’m convinced that it might be Pixar’s magnum opus. It’s so complete and breezily lightfooted that one can’t help but fall in love with the world that Brad Bird has created. 14 years onward and very few superhero movies I can think of have even come close to touching it. And it’s not even based on a comic book.

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“You Were Never Really Here” Movie Review

Never underestimate a film’s trailer when it stars Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how cool it looked it could have never prepared me for actually watching this film, just like you won’t be ready. Lynne Ramsay’s neo-noir crime thriller first premiered in the Official Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Despite the fact that it was still a work in progress, it received an 8-minute standing ovation plus awards for Best Screenplay (Shared with The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Best Actor. Strangely enough, Amazon Studios chose to skip awards season and instead released the film limited on April 6th, 2018. Thus far, aided by strong critical reviews, it has grossed over $3.4 million at the box office, becoming the director’s most commercially successful film to date. After dropping out of Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun, Ramsay decided to lay low for a while until she came upon the source material. It is also her first full-length narrative feature in 7 years, her last one being the controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Phoenix stars as Joe, a traumatized Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent now working as a contract killer. One day, New York state senator Albert Votto approaches him and begs Joe to save his teenage daughter Nina from prostitution. While Joe accepts it as a regular job, he uncovers a vast conspiracy web more complex and disturbing than he could have ever imagined. Just by giving that synopsis, the average reader might cast this film aside as yet another derivative crime thriller starring a big name actor. But if anyone has ever watched a film by Lynne Ramsay, then you should know that her films are not so easily pigeonholed. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since it premiered last year. Why Amazon Studios chose to forego a potential awards season run for the lead actor in the fall season and instead release in the spring is still something I’m trying to figure out. But please don’t let the familiar premise and all the “artsy-fartsy” festival buzz deter you; You Were Never Really Here is one of the finest crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. And perhaps that has to do with its subversive take on a harsh topic such as child exploitation. Rather than create a semi-Romantic film that ironically glamorizes the profession of hitmen, Ramsay wisely makes the viewers observers. It’s arguably with this clinical, objective technique that she is able to fully explore the subject matter without fear of exploiting it. Imagine the most European arthouse version of Taken crossed with Martian Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and that’s about where the tone and style are at. But it never feels self-indulgent or overly obsessed with itself. It is able to find a beautiful balance between empathy for the characters and dispassion in the brutal violence. Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible method actor but, without a doubt, Joe is his best role to date. Imbuing an immense amount of humanity and confusion into the performance, we see just enough of his deeply troubling past to understand his motives and when Votto asks him if really is violent he replies, “I can be.” I will honestly be shocked if he isn’t at least considered for Best Actor this year, even if the film missed out last year. Opposite him is the young Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto, who does a lot without speaking a lot of dialogue. While she sometimes feels more like a symbol than an actual character, hers is truly a breakout role since we can see so much pain and loss of innocence in her small eyes. The two of them are also supported by character actors like Alex Manette as the upset senator wanting his daughter back, John Doman as the hardened handler for Joe’s work, Judith Roberts as Joe’s helpless mother, Alessandro Nivola as the Governor with mysterious ties to the case, and Frank Pandro as a concerned middle man. They’re all great in their own way, but never even come close to Phoenix’s work. As for the filmmaking aspects of it all, Lynne Ramsay shows complete control with her own voice in nearly every department. Shot by underrated British cameraman Thomas Townend, the cinematography captures a seedy griminess to the story rarely found in New York-set cinema. There’s a constant contrast between steady, distant full shots of the scenes and close-ups where the actor might be looking directly into the camera. Not a single frame goes wasted or feels unnecessary, which gives us an opportunity to get to know the characters better without so much exposition. Also, frequent Werner Herzog collaborator knows exactly when to move between these haunting shots. There are a number of smash cuts between either the past, the present, or possible scenarios. This, along with the impressionistic and wholesome sound design, immerse the audience in a narrative that feels fractured, much like Joe’s state of mind. While his work has included both Paul Thomas Anderson and the band Radiohead, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has assembled his best work to date for the score. A highly dynamic soundtrack, the man often trades staccato strings and percussion with pieces on a dark-toned synthesizer. His side-job as a computer programmer and infrequent use of diegetic background noises in tracks helps to create a New York City that, much like Daniel Lopatin’s work on Good Time, feels so alien. There’s a beautiful scene near the climax of the film that combines all of the above mentioned techniques with an amazing piece composed by Greenwood. The mix of electric melodies and distant sounds create an emotional connection without trying to manipulate audiences. That being said, I feel like not a lot of people are going to watch this movie. The subject matter, and the manner in which the film deals with it, are so heavy that most mainstream audiences probably won’t even want to try it. Above all, it’s a sad film; these institutions do exist around the world and some of the most powerful men or women condone it. And while some of the characters here are truly despicable, the director rejects the want for them to get a real satisfying closure. Because of this, some may leave the theater wanting more in a bad way. However, I just grew to appreciate her restraint in this approach. You Were Never Really Here is a powerful sucker punch of intense brutality and emotions. One of the absolute best films of the year, I was totally riveted and glued to my seat for all 90 minutes of its runtime. It flies by, which for some may be a relief with its difficult and bold subject matter. This could be the future of action thrillers.

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“Isle of Dogs” Movie Review

Those dogs did NOT deserve the treatment they received. As the owner of a boxer, seeing anything like that portrayed on the big screen makes me uncomfortable. Acclaimed writer-director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated picture first premiered at the 2018 Berlinale in mid-February, where Anderson won a Silver Bear award for directing. After closing out the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, the film entered a limited American release on March 23rd, 2018. It has done rather well in its run thus far, grossing over $39.6 million at the box office and should perform even better once it releases widely on April 20th. Anderson’s ninth overall feature and his second using stop-motion animation, the story apparently was born out of the auteur’s obsessive love of the films from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It’s also said that he was heavily influenced by holiday specials by Rankin/Bass Productions as well as the exploits of Mecha-Godzilla. Set in a dystopian future, canines have not only grown to epidemic levels but have also contracted a new flu virus. Fearing transition to humans, Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City, Japan, banishes all dogs to Trash Island, where several of them form tight-knit packs. The mayor’s young ward and nephew Atari travels to the island in an effort to find his lost dog Spot, all the while civil unrest is becoming more apparent in the city. I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson and his works, some better than others. His previous film, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, was one of the earliest reviews on my Blog and is perhaps one of my favorite comedies of the decades. So the prospect of him writing and directing another stop-motion picture 9 years after the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox? I’m already signed up before I read the plot synopsis. Well, I’ll say that Isle of Dogs is a lower-tier film coming from the American auteur, and certainly is no modern masterpiece. But still, that shouldn’t necessarily deter you from watching it because I had a fun time watching it. However, I’m unfortunately inclined to agree with a recent controversy that has arisen regarding this film. Specifically, Anderson and studio Fox Searchlight have been accused by a number of critics for misappropriating Japanese people and their culture. While there are a number of things that it does get right, it ultimately does succumb to certain Hollywood stereotypes. Moreover, some of them were played for laughs, a large amount of which I actually partook in. Among these was the language barrier between the Japanese, the dogs, and the Americans. While dog barks have been happily translated into English for us, the Japanese characters are often speaking without any subtitles, only aided by a running gag of a television translator. The concept was initially amusing but definitely stretched to the max. The hugely stacked ensemble voice cast does extremely well at almost every turn, especially some of Anderson’s regular collaborators. Including *deep breath* Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Yoko Ono, Courtney B. Vance, Liev Schrieber, Akira Ito, Harvey Keitel, Ken Watanabe, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens, Akira Takayama, Greta Gerwig, Anjelica Huston, and co-writer Kunichi Nomura. With the possible exception of Gerwig, all of their characters feel like a worthy addition to the tight, almost flight-footed plot. Most of the dialogue is delivered in an extremely deadpan way, almost as if they’re all aware of the fact they’re in a movie. While there is an apparent melancholy to what everyone’s saying, the manner in which it’s said is nothing short of hilarious. And from a purely technical standpoint, Isle of Dogs is a Wes Anderson movie through and through. All of his distinct trademarks are in place, not the least of which includes the cinematography by Tristan Oliver. Capturing a certain color palette between gray and red, there are a number of static wide shots and close-ups. We also get to see his perfect symmetry where literally everything onscreen is shown in an exact order, from character arrangements to everyday items in the background. The differences in animation between this picture and Fantastic Mr. Fox are astounding with the improvements. Freezing just a single frame would be worth extensive analysis on its own with all the details on the figures and environments. What’s more impressive is that even something like explosions or fight scenes are put together with puffy clouds of cotton, not CG. Plus the editing by Ralph Foster and Edward Bursch is frenetic. Often, something serious or drawn out will be punctuated by an abrupt cut, eliciting real laughter out of my audience. In his 4th collaboration with the director, and the umpteenth in his seemingly endless cinematic hot streak, Alexandre Desplat composes the musical score. One of the most obvious instruments heard here is traditional taiko drums with deep impacts and pulsating rhythms. It is frequently accompanied by ferocious work from auxiliary equipment such as steel pipes and cowbells, which maintain the craziness of this story. Meanwhile, Desplat also manages to incorporate a set of bamboo whistles into perfectly idiosyncratic melodies. In all of this effort, he totally succeeds in making a Western film sound as foreign as possible to audiences while still making it not sound too alien to enjoy. With some truly stunning stop-motion animation, an appropriately self-aware cast, and a compelling story that flies by through its 101 minute-long runtime, Isle of Dogs is a whimsical adventure that occasionally gets bogged down in politics. Fans of Wes Anderson will certainly have a lot to chow down on repeat viewings, even though this definitely isn’t measured up to his finest work. One last thing: If you say the title fast enough, you’ll begin saying, “I love dogs.” And this movie might just convert you to a lover, if you aren’t one already.

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