Category Archives: Dystopia

“Alita: Battle Angel” Movie Review

I’ve imagined for many years what I might want to do if I was suddenly bestowed with cybernetically enhanced body parts. Being a badass fighter-type has been near the top of that list for the longest time, and this movie realizes it pretty well. This dystopian cyberpunk actioner was released in theaters by 20th Century Fox on February 15th, 2019. Previously, the film had been pegged for a late summer 2018 release and then another one for that year’s holiday season. Thus far, it has grossed around $163.7 million against an estimated overall budget of $170 million. Much of that money comes from overseas markets, where it has far outpaced some of the studio’s previous films in profits. Among all of this, it’s received a mixed critical reception from critics and audiences alike, with some proclaiming either to be terrible or amazing. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, the film- based on the manga series Gunnm or Battle Angel Alita by Yukito Kashiro -had been gestating in development hell since at least 2003. James Cameron was originally signed on to produce and direct the film with partner Jon Landau, as well as co-write the script with Altered Carbon scribe Laeta Kalogridis. However, Cameron ultimately stepped down from the position to focus on his Avatar sequels and gave the gig to Rodriguez, although he retains producing and co-writing credits on the final product. And apparently, the final script was shot with over 600 pages worth of notes while filming occurred. Set in the year 2563, the story takes place in the junk-filled metropolis of Iron City, one of the last specs of civilization after a devastating war called “The Fall.” In this junkyard, a scientists named Dr. Ido Dyson, played by Christoph Waltz, discovers a surviving part of a cyborg in a pile dumped from the lofty sky-city of Zalem, just above Iron City. He rebuilds the parts into a female cyborg named Alita, played by Rosa Salazar, who has incredible strength and agility despite having lost all of her memory. As she gradually regains pieces from her past, she becomes the target of both low-level bounty hunter cyborgs and residents of Zalem that are concerned she’ll mess with their dominance. I remember watching the first teaser trailer over a year ago and being might intrigued by what was being promised. Although I’m completely unfamiliar with the (Apparently influential) manga series it’s based on, the prospect of seeing James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez collaborate on a film together was very enticing. I loved Sin City and From Dusk Til Dawn, and his ultra low-budget debut El Mariachi is a literal inspiration for me as an aspiring filmmaker, so seeing him team up with the brains behind Terminator and Aliens is obviously gonna get my blood pumping. Then its release date got delayed twice, which is rarely a good sign in modern studio blockbusters. Not to mention, the titular character’s unusually large eyes became something of a meme when the first footage was initially revealed. Now it’s finally been put out to the public, with the big hopes of launching a brand new franchise. Alita: Battle Angel is certainly better than your average manga adaptation, yet it still leaves something to be desired. This really does feel like a movie that James Cameron was going to direct, but handed off the reigns to someone else at the last minute. Make no mistake, Robert Rodriguez’s distinct touch is still there and all, and the idea of him and the guy who made Aliens making a dystopian movie together sounds like an honest-to-God dream collaboration. And at points throughout the film, it definitely feels like that potential comes through. But while it is mostly its own movie, Alita: Battle Angel more often than not feels far too preoccupied trying to set up plot points or character arcs for sequels. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo near the very end that nearly made me jump out of my seat in surprise. The tough pill to swallow, though, is that it may be unlikely that a sequel will really happen. And that’s a damn shame, because it deserves a chance. I’ve seen Rosa Salazar in a handful of roles the last couple of years, and hopefully this becomes her big break. Through the motion-capture work, she shines as Alita, a cyborg woman with a childlike innocence and the fighting skills of a trained killer. Christoph Waltz also gets a break from his villainous roles as Dr. Ido Dyson, Alita’s creator and father figure. While he’s forced to do unsavory things to sustain his clinic in Iron City, it’s clear that he has a great amount of compassion and humility that is sorely lacking in this world. The weakest link though, is newcomer Keean Johnson as Hugo, Alita’s main love interest. His character never really seemed that interesting, and the chemistry he should have had with Salazar was practically nonexistent. The rest of the cast is filled out by the likes of Ed Skrein, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jennifer Connolly, Mahershala Ali, Jackie Earl Haley, and Idara Victor. While they all try their best, (It’s cool to see Ali play a straight-up villain for once) only a handful are able to elevate behind simple archetypes. However, when it comes to the technical side of things, Alita: Battle Angel is unquestionably a sight to behold. Bill Pope’s cinematography feels just as eye-boggling and fluid as it was in The Matrix trilogy nearly 20 years ago. The dystopian landscape is caught in a slightly dingy and neon-plastered frame that oozes style and beauty, despite the griminess of its setting. It also matches up with the editing by Stephen E. Rivkin, which feels smooth and calculated. None of the action scenes feel choppy or hard to follow, which is especially impressive considering over half of the characters have some sort of metal prosthetic. But the meat of this film is undoubtedly the motion-capture work and visual effects done by the always reliable Weta Digital. This is easily some of their most impressive work yet, which is really saying something considering these guys also made the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a host of Marvel movies. Although it occasionally looked a tad cartoony in some shots, it did such an amazing job at blending real actors with their CG costumes, including and especially Alita herself. As one of the most prolific and inventive composers in recent memory, Tom Holkenborg A.K.A. Junkie XL provides the instrumental film score. And like much of his other work, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s very exciting and befitting to the setting. The score infuses rapid strings with bellowing horns quite frequently, matching the intensity and fast-paced action happening on-screen. It also uses a number of dynamic percussion instruments as well as synthesized sounds to create a unique sound. Much like its protagonist, it can be whimsical, futuristic, and badass all at once. We also get treated to an original song called “Swan Song” by the singer Dua Lipa, which plays during the end credits sequence. It was much more infectious and catchy song than I was expecting, using a great beat and gorgeous vocals to provide a neat coda to the adventure. Its lyrics and style feel appropriate to give the titular character a fighting anthem all her own. Alita: Battle Angel is a well-meaning and visually stunning but narratively messy sci-fi action romp. Although it fell short of my expectations, what Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron accomplished here is nothing short of nonstop fun. I legitimately want to see this film succeed so that we can see more of this world in the future. The story, I mean, not the actual Iron City itself.

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“The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” Movie Review

One has to wonder what Solo: A Star Wars Story would have looked like if Lord and Miller had actually finished it their way. I know that’s very cliched thing to say now, but I just can’t help but be mighty curious, especially with something like this and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This computer-animated comedy adventure was theatrically released on February 8th, 2019, almost exactly 5 years since its predecessor. While it has grossed over $103.8 million at the worldwide box office thus far, given its $99 million budget, it performed under expectations for the studio. In fact, some are debating whether it will be able to turn a real profit by the end of its theatrical run. That being said, it has still received fairly positive response from audiences and critics, albeit a little less so than the first film in the series. Directed by Mike Mitchell, the original film’s creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller return to produce and write the screenplay. The biggest creative hurdle they faced during production was seamlessly and successfully moving between the headspace and imagination of the human children. There were also a number of brand new Lego mini-figures created specifically for the film, many of which were made with the subject’s permission. Taking place 5 years after the events of the original, the vast and diverse world of Bricksburg has been turned into Apocalypseburg after an invasion from Duplo bricks. Master Builder Emmet Brickowski, voiced by Chris Pratt is struggling to adjust his attitude to the hardened tone of many of his world’s inhabitants, including his girlfriend Lucy/ Wyldstyle, voiced by Elizabeth Banks. One day, an alien named General Mayhem kidnaps Lucy and various other Master Builders and takes them to a brand new place called the Systar System. Racing against time to save them, Emmet gets some unexpected help along the way from a mysterious galaxy-defending, raptor-training cowboy named Rex Dangervest. I absolutely loved The Lego Movie from 2014 and it remains one of the biggest cinematic surprises I’ve ever seen. Although I genuinely regret missing it in theaters, it proved everyone who thought it would be terrible wrong by providing fast-paced humor and a surprisingly thoughtful story to go along. Not to mention, it’s proven to be an incredibly rewatchable movie with tons of cool references and jokes to find each new time. And while I enjoyed The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie, I was waiting eagerly for a proper sequel to that modern classic. Whether or not it would actually live up to the first one is a bit unfair, since its predecessor had the element of surprise whereas this one became highly anticipated. And the answer is no, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is ultimately not as good the second time around. But still, it’s a very entertaining animated romp with plenty of humor and action to keep viewers preoccupied for 107 minutes. What’s most surprising about this sequel is how it doesn’t seem interested in retreading old ground or repeating what happened last time. Instead, Lord and Miller attempt to move things forward in a relevant way, finding time to address new topics. Whereas the previous one was a thinly veiled critique of capitalism and anti-copyright law, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is more of an indictment of toxic masculinity. Emmet has no idea how to be tough and strong in a world so fundamentally weary of itself, and when he tries it ultimately hurts both him and his loved ones. As one character points out, “It’s easy to harden your heart, but opening it up is one of the hardest things we can do.” Liking things that were meant for kids or staying upbeat in dark times is never a thing to feel ashamed of, no matter what others may tell you. Chris Pratt pulls double duty, both returning as Emmet Brickowski and voicing his self-parody as Rex Dangervest. They present a fun and interesting duality of his career; one is the lovable everyday guy who doesn’t think too much, the other is a badass, self-serious action hero. Tiffany Haddish is among the newer additions to the cast and is more than welcome. As Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting alien monarch ruling over the Duplos, she is every bit as witty and hilarious as she is in many of her other live-action roles. Pretty much all of the voice cast from the first film reprise their roles here and are still perfect. These include Will Arnett as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Elizabeth Banks as the troubled girlfriend Lucy, Charlie Day as the spaceship-obsessed astronaut Benny, Nick Offerman as the cantankerous pirate MetalBeard, and Allison Brie as the feisty and unpredictable Unikitty. Other newcomers include Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz as the deadpan General Mayhem, who is not what she first appears to be. Hearing her speak awkward lines in a menacingly robotic voice had me and the audience in stitches numerous times. And when it comes to the technical aspects, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is extremely impressive and polished. One thing I love about this series is that even though it’s computer-animated, they go through an insane amount of motions to make it look like stop-motion. That continues here with gloriously smooth textures and a wide-ranging color palette. The level of detail in each individual shot is almost unreal, with virtually everything on-screen- including explosions, water splashes, and dust clouds -resembling Lego pieces. Mark Mothersbaugh, who previously composed for the first entry in the franchise, once again provides the instrumental film score. Much like last time, it’s a whimsical one befitting of the sweeping and wacky adventure shown on-screen. It’s a very diverse and wide-ranging sound, with instruments like synthesizers, percussion, and strings going back and forth over who controls the melody. It’s highly suspenseful and thrilling for the action scenes and more calm or moody when establishing the setting, including the Mad Max parody of Apocalypseburg. And also like the first film, the soundtrack features a couple of earworms out of original songs. The most obvious one this time around is “Catchy Song” by Dillon Francis, T-Pain and That Girl Lay Lay. It’s a musical number which literally promises in its lyrics that it will get stuck inside your head, and it does. But there’s also a somber redux of the original’s “Everything is Awesome” into “Everything’s Not Awesome.” Hearing the whole cast sing it in the tired world of 2019 was something I never expected I would need to hear. Utilizing a new line of characters and choosing new themes to address, even if it doesn’t always stick the landing, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is a playful reminder of kid-like wonder and fun. Miller and Lord continue to do wonders with ideas that should be absolutely terrible on paper, but end up being highly entertaining for broad audiences. And while the messaging and plot may not be as clever in this sequel as its predecessor, it’s still a welcome one. In these dark and scary times, everything isn’t awesome- and that’s okay, and we shouldn’t let that force us to change ourselves.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” Movie Review

I’m honestly not quite sure if this was the best or worst movie for me to watch in preparation for Valentine’s Day. All I’ll say is that, as a hopeless romantic myself, I think I might have related to it a little more than I should have. This science-fiction romantic-dramedy was originally released in theaters worldwide on March 19th, 2004. Made on a budget of $20 million, it made over $72.3 million at the box office, making it one of the director’s most profitable films to date. It also earned critical acclaim, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and has developed a strong cult following in the years since. Many critics have even gone so far as to call it one of the best films of 21st century cinema. Directed by Michel Gondry, the idea was initially conceived in the 1990’s when his creative partner Pierre Bismuth mentioned how a friend said she wanted to erase her ex-boyfriend from her memory. Originally designed to be an art experiment, the two hired Charlie Kaufman to write the screenplay proper, who rejected Focus Features initial idea of making it into a thriller. The script was consistently rewritten during the film process, and a number of scenes were either toned down or just cut out entirely. Jim Carrey stars as Joel Barish, an introvert who can never seem to find the right person for a relationship. One day, his prayers are seemingly answered by a blue-haired woman named Clementine Kruczynski, played by Kate Winslet, but the two suffer a terrible breakup after two years together. Heartbroken beyond repair, they then resolve to have a firm called Lacuna Inc. erase all memories of each other from their brains. But as Joel journeys down the rabbit hole, he soon realizes that he’s still in love with her and tries to preserve her memory by any means necessary. Although I’m not well acquainted with Gondry’s filmography, I do really like Charlie Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter. His debut Being John Malkovich is one of the most original and wildly eccentric films to ever come out of the medium, and while his other works are mixed bags, I can definitely appreciate his ambition. I was long interested in checking this film out, primarily because people kept boasting it as one of the best science-fiction films ever made, and one of the best films of the last 20 years. And let’s face it, we’ve all met at least one person in our lives that we’d love to complete wipe from our brains. And while I’m not quite convinced that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the 2000’s-defining masterpiece many make it out to be, it’s still a wonderful movie worth watching. What surprised me a lot was how the film shares many similarities with Spike Jonze’s own sci-fi film Her. By that, I mean both films use a sci-fi concept or idea as a means to open up its characters and story, but doesn’t entirely rely on it as a crutch. Eternal Sunshine obviously couldn’t exist without its core conceit, but the impressive thing is how often Gondry and Kaufman push it to the background to give leeway to a genuinely tragic love story. Of course, this being a Kaufman script, it’s never that simple and practically indulges on taking the audience for a head-whirl. Jim Carrey has always been best when balancing humor and drama together, and his performance as Joel Barish is a perfect example of this. More melancholy than his turn in The Truman Show, he believably portrays a soft-spoken man with a huge emotional void looking for loving relationship. Opposite him is Kate Winslet as Clementine Kruczynski, which deservedly earned her a Best Actress nomination. An unconventional love interest if ever there was one, she completely foregoes the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” stereotype. Elijah Wood is also worth mentioning as Patrick, a slimy, creepy guy trying to take advantage of the memory erasure. It’s a complete far cry from his role as Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and one that makes his career even more fascinating. Tom Wilkinson, Mark Ruffalo, and Kirsten Dunst all do respectable work as various members of Lacuna Inc. I wasn’t expecting to get interested in their stories, which play alongside what’s going on inside of Joel’s head. But lo and behold, they managed to be pretty compelling and engaging characters. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind prove to be very distinguished and unique. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is very inspired and immersive, utilizing mostly a handheld, cinéma vérité style to make the story feel more immediate. For tracking shots, instead of using traditional camera dollies, they used sleds and chariots, continuing the feeling of a disorienting, gradually fading nightmare. It also achieves a number of impressive visual effects in-camera via forced perspective, which contribute even further to Gondry’s uncompromising visual style. The editing is done by Valdís Óskarsdóttir, who reportedly clashed with the writer and director during post-production. It’s absolutely fascinating how well it was cut together, especially with all of the continuity that one would have to keep in check. It uses a number of sudden jumpcuts throughout, similar to French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard. These help to trim so fat off of the 108 minute-long runtime, and create juxtapositions to whatever someone may be saying. Multi-instrumentalist and indie darling Jon Brion provides the film score here, and it’s definitely an interesting one to listen to. Unlike some of his later work, the soundtrack here feels wholly unconventional in its sound and style. The primary theme incorporates a melancholy piano melody and distorted strings to create an effective feeling of heartbreak and nostalgia. He uses these instruments throughout nearly all the tracks, and manages to be touching without resorting to manipulation or mawkishness. There are also a number of pre-existing songs used in spurts throughout the film. The most notable of these is “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” by Beck, while plays in the final scene as well as the credits. It’s arguably the best song they could have picked to close out the wholly unique story. All in all, this  might just be the most emotionally involving film in the screenwriter’s repertoire. While I’ll keep defending Being John Malkovich, it’s hard for me to blame anyone who left feeling completely cold. And while this film is by no means a “feel-good” or universal experience, it might be one of his most easily accessible works to date. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a highly creative and introspective story of love and heartbreak. The collaboration between Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman is quite the final product, and stands as one of the most original romances made for cinema. Jim Carrey also performs his heart out in one of his best roles while Kate Winslet breaks typecasting as his perfectly matched soulmate. And despite its weird premise, I guarantee that it’s a good choice for Valentine’s Day, whether you’re in a relationship or not. It may not be for everyone, but it should certainly capture their attention.

“Children of Men” Movie Review

My God. The things that Man will do to one another when they forget the sound of cries and laughter from children. This science-fiction drama thriller initially premiered at the 63rd Venice International Film Festival, where it won an award for achievement in cinematography. And although it debuted to the top spot in the United Kingdom, when it was released in the U.S. on Christmas Day of that year, it failed to really make a dent. The Universal Pictures production ended up only making back $70 million against a $75 million  budget. Although, it was nominated for various year-end awards, and has grown dramatically in reputation in the years since its release. Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, the film is an extremely loose adaptation of P.D. James’ novel of the same name, the first draft of which was written back in 2001. Shooting was temporarily pushed back while the director worked on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during which he drew several influences from The Battle of Algiers as well as his own experiences living in Britain. During production, the infamous 7/7 London bombings occurred, but this apparently did not deter the cast or crew in much capacity. Set in the year 2027, humanity has been completely infertile for nearly two decades, causing most of society as we know it to collapse. The few functioning governments left create massive, harsh sanctions against immigrants or refugees of any kind, causing consistent violence. In the city of London, a bureaucrat named Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, is approached by a militant, pro-immigrant activist group called the Fishes and is strong-armed into escorting a young refugee named Kee away from the chaos. It becomes especially important since Kee is, miraculously, the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years. As the 24th and final film in my New Year’s resolution, I wanted to tackle yet another highly regarded picture that I had never seen before. I had heard many a great chatter about this film for a long time, with some people even going so far as to say that it’s the best sci-fi movie of the 21st Century so far. And I have loved virtually every film that Alfonso Cuarón has made since Y Tu Mamá Tambien, so this felt like a completion of sorts. Plus, it was super enticing to see what his take on a near-apocalyptic future would look like. And I couldn’t have picked a better film to round out my resolution with because Children of Men is an essential, moving, and utterly captivating film to behold. I’m sure many people have said it already, but I feel one of the biggest reasons for its power is how it has- unfortunately -only become more relevant in recent years. 2027 is not that far away anymore and while there has yet to be an infertility pandemic, more and more countries are closing off their borders and turning to fear-mongering as their next generations are seemingly ignored or forgotten. Through context, we learn of the decadence that the remains of humanity have turned to in a child-less world, one where there’s seemingly no hope for the future. What makes Children of Men so terrifying is how much Cuarón grounds the story in reality, creating a plausible scenario where the last hope of our species is surrounded by a bleak world. I’ve liked Clive Owen in various projects over the years, but his turn as Theo Faron is easily the best performance of his career. Having apparently been heavily involved in early writing, he completely owns this character as a cynical man who’s lost nearly all faith in his fellow man. But when the time comes, he truly steps up to the plate in complete selflessness to protect what’s really important. Julianne Moore and Michael Caine do respectable work as Faron’s ex-wife/the leader of the Fishes and his drug dealing friend, respectively. Although they’re not in the movie for very long, each leaves a lasting impact as they relish roles unusual for their careers and we really feel a past history they had with Theo. There are also a number of unexpectedly strong supporting players such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, Oana Pellea, and Pam Farris. Then, there’s Kee, played by Claire Hope-Ashitey. Although her character doesn’t exist in the original novel, she stands as the embodiment of the recent single-origin hypothesis- that all human life began on Africa. It’s a beautiful allegory and she carries many of her scenes with all of the confusion and strength and weight of a young mother-to-be. We immediately grow to care about her, and not just because she potentially has the key to human survival, but that others seek to take advantage of this. Meanwhile, the filmmaking aspects of Children of Men show Alfonso Cuarón being in complete control of his craft once more. With his regular collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematography helps to make an utterly bleak future look quite gorgeous. There are a number of extremely impressive long takes, such as a mounted perspective of an attack on the group in a car or a shaky camera following Theo through a violent war-torn city. The use of natural lighting is especially effective as we get to gradually see details of this world come into focus through the sunlight or by other ways. Cuarón also edits the film like many of his other works, this time in collaboration with longtime friend Alex Rodríguez. There are thankfully a number of good cuts to go around, as some of the one-take scenes begin to get exhausting after a little bit. It also manages to help capture certain parts of the action from different angles and perspectives, which keeps things consistently interesting. There is a instrumental film score, albeit a minimal one, composed and conducted by the late John Tavener. It’s not a traditional score, as the few tracks written feel extremely fluid with one another. The most predominant track is “Fragments of a Prayer,” which uses both dynamic vocals and ethereal strings to create a spiritual atmosphere. Some of the others use full-scale choirs and even flutes and unique percussion instruments. Many of these elements come together for a scene near the end that creates a true sense of emotional beauty. My jaw dropped and my heart stopped as it went on, a momentary pause in a fictional world so devoid of any hope. I can’t really write about it here because it’s so hard to describe in its power, despite its apparent simplicity, but all I can say is that I was left stunned. Frighteningly relevant today, but never succumbing to its bleakness, Children of Men is a hauntingly stark vision of human nature in dystopia. It celebrates some of our best qualities while simultaneously condemning the ones that make us worse off. Alfonso Cuarón is a true master of finding incredible subtext within even the simplest of stories, painting a sci-fi world in a way that feels like it could become a reality. Let’s hope that it never does.

“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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“Ready Player One” Movie Review

Y’all are talking about all of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references abound in this movie, but NONE of them made me feel more warm or nostalgic than seeing the Amblin Entertainment logo at the beginning. Only a true follower of 80’s pop culture like Halliday would probably get that same feeling. This dystopian sci-fi adventure from director Steven Spielberg held a surprise premiere at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival, where it debuted to positive critical response. Originally scheduled release in theaters on March 30th, the producers saw the potential of the Good Friday weekend and it arrived a day early. Raking in over $109 million worldwide in the first few days, it is now projected to become the director’s highest-grossing film in years. Based on Ernest Cline’s book of the same name, who also co-wrote the screenplay, the adaptation wallowed in development hell for a few years primarily due to securing rights to all of the references in the book. After Spielberg came aboard, it was only a matter of how many they could actually keep, with his public proclamation that many of his own movies would be avoided- with a few exceptions. The 2-hour and 20 minute-long story takes place in the dystopian future of 2045 when reality has become such a resource-depleted place that most of them retreat to a virtual reality called The OASIS. One of those people is Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, whose avatar Parzival is something of a loser obsessed with pop culture from the 1980’s. When the creator James Halliday dies with no heirs, he creates a contest: Whoever can find an Easter Egg in his game first will inherit his entire fortune and control of The OASIS. Soon, Parzival grabs the first clue and finds himself thrust into a situation rife with allies and players who are literally willing to kill to get the Egg, all while learning the difference between the real world and the virtual one. Full disclosure before going on further: I’ve read the book by Ernest Cline numerous times before they even announced the cast. While the plot sometimes felt overwhelmed by the nostalgia and references, I was constantly wowed by the epic adventure. Hearing that Steven Spielberg, the man behind many of the book’s influences, would be directing the adaptation felt like a cinephile’s wet dream, especially after the epic first trailer. While news that the movie deviated heavily from the source material created great skepticism among many, I still remained the optimist. That optimism paid off dearly because Ready Player One was a blast for me to watch. I can see, however, that a lot of people are going to be turned off by the wave of pop culture references. In fact, the amount that can be found in the movie is practically exhausting. To me, this wasn’t really window-dressing so much as a look into someone like Wade, whose fanboyism has almost divorced him from the real world. Honestly, it could have gone a little more in-depth about the subject, but for the most part, the movie is able to walk the line. It’s not really about condemning or advocating fandoms of any kind, but rather asking what they do for the individual and where they lead to. The cast is well-aware that they’re in a Spielbergian adventure and are reveling in every moment of it. Tye Sheridan plays the part of Wade Watts like a classic hero as if he were convinced that he was a lovechild between a superhero and a John Hughes protagonist. While some of the dialogue is corny and exposition-heavy, he convincingly plays a kid struggling with identity. Opposite him are Lena Waithe and Olivia Cooke as Aech and Artemis. They both elevate beyond the archetypes of “best friend” or “love interest” and are given full personalities and concerns. Mark Rylance and Simon Pegg play James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, the two creators of The OASIS. While their screentime is limited, we get to see both ends of the VR argument; Morrow is concerned about the substitute for reality while Halliday just never fits in anywhere else. Other supporters like Philip Zhao, Hannah John-Kamen, Win Morisaki, and T.J. Miller add interesting extras to the package but aren’t given a whole lot of room to develop into full, interesting characters. Biggest surprise goes to Ben Mendohlson as Nolan Sorrento, head of the nefarious corporation I.O.I. While he initially seems like a generic big-suit bad guy, we later get to see how little value he sees in The OASIS beyond money. The fact that his avatar is completely uninspired is a rich rip on his lack of imagination in a world full of it. And the director proves once again that even 32 feature films into his career, he’s still got it behind the camera. Most of his regular collaborators return with him. Janus Kaminski’s fluid camera movements? Check. Michael Kahn’s clever editing between both reality and The OASIS? Check. Adam Stockhausen’s brilliant, grungy production design of the Stacks and other places? Check. The big winner here, though, is Industrial Lights & Magic with their glorious visual effects. Even with nearly 317 movies under their belt, the motion capture work done to bring The OASIS to life is magnificent, some of the best done in the movies yet. Each avatar and location is crafted with care and craft. The climactic battle sequence is one of the largest-in-scale I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, but nothing felt hard to follow in the slightest. The amount of references they were able to pack in here warrants a rewatch alone. This is one of the only Spielberg films in which John Williams did not compose the musical score, instead taken care of by Alan Silvestri. And he does a fantastic job, giving us a soundtrack worthy of the films that it wants to pay homage to. The main theme is like a clever homage to several “heroic” musical themes of the past such as Indiana Jones, employing all sorts of different classic styles. You’ve got your Williams with piercing horns, James Horner with epic accompanying vocals, a bit of dynamic percussion like Jerry Goldsmith, and beautiful swelling strings like Silvestri himself. They all come together to create an eclectic and genuinely original soundtrack, on top of some of the most recognizable songs from 1980’s played just for keeps. At this point in his career, I don’t think it’s possible for the director to make a terrible movie. Not even if he tried. There are definitely quite a few people who aren’t going to be won over by this one, either because of its overwhelming nostalgia, strong deviations from the book, or clear messages. Though its character development leaves something to be desired, for me, Ready Player One is a really fun adventure with loving homages to its influences. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but beyond anything, it shows that the 71-year-old still knows how to craft an enthralling adventure, even if it feels like cruise-control sometimes. Doubting Steven Spielberg’s ability to entertain audiences always makes you look like an idiot, even if the results aren’t always amazing.

“Mute” Movie Review

Chasing your dream project for years on end can typically be a respectable endeavor. But when they result in something like this, maybe it wasn’t the best idea. This poorly conceived cyberpunk dystopian sci-fi drama was released by Netflix on February 23rd, 2018. Although its actual budget remains unknown at the moment, the film received a wave of negative reviews from critics. Written and directed by Duncan Jones, the same man behind Moon, Source Code, and (Unfortunately) Warcraft, the film is purported to be a passion project of his, with the earliest draft being written back in the 2000’s. Jones himself has described it as a spiritual sequel to Moon, and there’s even a scene with Sam Rockwell cameoing in his previous role. Set in a futuristic version of the city of Berlin, Alexander Skarsgård stars as a mute Amish bartender named Leo who struggles to stay in touch with the technological world around him. After a fateful night, his girlfriend Naadirah, who works at the same club as him, vanishes without a trace. As she is the only person who truly communicates with him, Leo follows a series of clues in Berlin that ropes him into a world of prostitutes, black market dealers, and two American army surgeons who seem to be the center of it all. To be upfront here, unlike many other critics that have reviewed this film, I have not seen any of Jones’ previous works. I do plan on watching Moon and Source Code soon, but Warcraft is one I’ve been hesitant on. Seeing all the bad press that that video game adaptation received, one would hope that he would be able to bounce back from it. And for a long while, this Netflix Original was one of my most anticipated movies of 2018. Even after reading some of the negative reviews, I figured this movie couldn’t possibly so terrible and unwatchable, right? Well… it’s pretty bad, guys. It’s also a damn tragedy for me to say this because Duncan Jones tried to get it off the ground for several years. The son of the late David Bowie (Who’s given a heartfelt tribute in the end credits) promoted it heavily on social media, sharing set photos and concept art almost daily. And that’s all great and dandy. Anyone who wants to make a lifelong passion project and share it with the world has already got my vote. Moreso than that, I always support anyone who wants to make an original science-fiction movie on a big studio budget. Netflix marketed this as their next big blockbuster, much like last year’s Bright. Also, like Bright, Mute fails at being either compelling or intriguing. Skarsgård has impressed me in past films with his performances, but something with Leo just felt off. I know it’s incredibly hard to act without any words, and he does a good job in some scenes, but most of the time he feels annoying and stupid. And that entire thread of him being an Amish man just feels tacked on. His girlfriend, Seyneb Saleh, isn’t any better and spends her spare moments whining and begging for a man. Ant-Man himself Paul Rudd is by far the best performer in the entire film as Cactus Bill, one of the American surgeons. Though his demeanor is uneven and acts like a conceded jerk, he clearly looks like he’s having the time of his life and is (mostly) able to power through the clunky dialogue. His best friend, played by Justin Theroux… is a pedophile. That’s not an exaggeration; Theroux’s character has a sexual attraction to young children in this movie. Admittedly, he does a fine job at being creepy and uncomfortable but the fact that it is played off like some sort of joke is wrong and honestly gross. As far as the technical aspects go, Mute doesn’t have too much going on that separates it from the cyberpunk noir genre. From the neon-soaked streets of night-time Berlin to the filthy interior buildings, the production designers try really hard to be like Blade Runner, a movie that will, unfortunately, get many comparisons to. The cinematography by Gary Shaw often opts for long wide shots, especially for some of the action sequences. Though it does provide a sense of character for the setting, showing as much of the world as possible without being too disorienting. Surprisingly, there’s a sparse amount of CGI used to create this futuristic setting, mostly relying on practical sets and oddball costumes to bring it to life. It definitely adds up to a grimy, lived-in feeling that it’s unfortunately unable to rise out of. Clint Mansell, one of the most versatile composers in the industry, gives us the musical score for this film. Taken as a whole, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a picture like this. The vast majority of the tracks consist heavily of synthesized beats and melodies, some of which seemingly go on indefinitely. On occasion, a new bit of percussion or strings were come in and reach for sentimentality in the story. Although that aspect failed, the soundtrack itself is actually pretty good to listen to and helps establish the somber tone of this world. But the film overall is wildly uneven in both pacing and tone. The first half is a slog to get through and even though it admittedly goes out on a high note, it would be perfectly reasonable if you turned it off by then. And the film seems unsure of whether it wants to be an all-in sci-fi extravaganza or a contemplative noir drama. Mute is a visually appealing busfire devoid of charm or pleasant characters. I could see why some people actually like Warcraft, but I have a hard time seeing anyone enjoying this Netflix Original. It makes me temper my expectations for all of their future content. And the saddest part of all is that, at the end of the day, Duncan Jones has nobody but himself to blame for this.

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