Isle Of Dogs (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

The Japanese archipelago, 20 years in the future. Canine saturation has reached an all-time high, and an outbreak of dog flu has created mass hysteria within the city of Megasaki. To quell the panic, Mayor Kobayashi signs an executive order deporting all dogs, including his family’s pet, Spots, to nearby trash island; the newly christened “isle of dogs.” Unbeknownst to the public, however, the cat-loving Kobayashi actually created the virus to stir up anti-dog hysteria, and is actively repressing the fact that it can easily be cured. And as if this weren’t bad enough, the mayor’s nephew and ward, Atari, has stolen a plane, and flown over to the island to find his beloved Spots. WIll Atari find his dog? Will the truth about the Mayor get out to the public? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Isle Of Dogs is written and directed by Wes Anderson. That fact alone makes this movie very hard to review, because, regardless of how flawed it might be, Anderson has an extremely loyal fan base, who will watch, and love, his films no matter what. For my part, I have mixed feelings on him. I’ve enjoyed some of his movies, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hated others, liked The Darjeeling Limited. And while I admire filmmakers who have very distinct visual, auditory and tonal styles, Anderson’s pension for bland, deadpan acting, overly hip soundtracks, and tendency to include, and barely use, recognizable stars, gets on my nerves. The fact that almost all his films have the same story, or deal with similar themes, also makes them very repetitive, and somewhat tedious, to get through. So, the question you have to ask yourself before you buy a ticket is, do I want to see another Wes Anderson movie? If not, avoid this film like the plague, because it is exactly like all his other movies. Every single Anderson-ism you could think of, symmetrical shots, pastel colored sets, deadpan acting, hipster music, sudden, and violent, scuffles, is on display here. Ed Norton, BIll Murray, Harvey Keitel, and Jeff Goldblum are all in this movie, as you’d expect. The flick even recycles plot elements from Anderson’s other films, particularly Moonrise Kingdom, which is also about an orphan running away from home and going on an adventure. Don’t let the fact that it’s animated, set in Japan, and about talking dogs fool you. You’ve seen this movie before. Many times.

Now before any Wes Anderson fans get up in arms about my review, there are aspects of this movie that I liked. The animation is beautiful, the story, while derivative of Anderson’s other work, is original, and there is a sweet relationship at the heart of this film. Over the course of the movie, Atari becomes close friends with Chief, a stray who initially doesn’t like him, and watching them grow to love each other is genuinely enjoyable. There are also some very cool nods to the works of Akira Kurosawa in this film. The soundtrack to Seven Samurai is played at several points in this movie, and there are some shots, including one of our heroes burying somebody, that are lifted directly from that film.

Unfortunately, that brings me to one of my biggest criticisms of the movie; the fact that its portrayal of Japan is beyond stereotypical. You can tell, just by looking at how the Japanese characters are designed, talk and move, that this was made by an outsider. There are several, extremely long scenes, which have nothing to do with the plot, where we watch stuff like sumo wrestling, kabuki theater, sushi preparation and taiko drumming, where you can tell that the director has never actually been to Japan, and is just pulling random things that he associates with the country out of his hat. And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Justin Chang of the LA Times, Steve Rose of The Guardian, Allison Willmore of BuzzFeed, and Angie Han of Mashable have all made note of how Anderson’s Japan consists almost exclusively of tourist cliches. And that even extends to the Japanese characters themselves. None of them speak English. Most of the time, when they talk, there are no subtitles. And a good portion of this film’s humor consists of the filmmaker going “Ha ha. These Asian characters can’t speak English. Look how funny they are when they try to communicate.” There’s also an American exchange student character, played by Greta Gerwig, who is the quintessential White savior. She comes to Japan, suspects Mayor Kobayashi of wrong-doing, and literally slaps her Asian colleagues into action. It’s kind of incredible that nobody seems to care about this. Now I do want to be fair and say that the stereotyping in this film doesn’t seem malicious. Anderson doesn’t appear to be saying, “the Japanese are lesser than us.” He just seems to have a very limited perception of them, and his portrayal of them is, likewise, very narrow. I didn’t find it offensive. More obnoxious. Like, “really? We’re actually doing this cliche? Ah well.”

But, as I said at the start of this review, the fact that this movie is made by Wes Anderson means that it will have an audience, no matter what. If, however, you aren’t a die-hard fanboy, and some of what I have said turned you off going to see this movie, good. Save your money, and watch something else.

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Ready Player One (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

In the future, the world has become overcrowded and crappy. So, as a means of escape, people turn to the Oasis, a massive, interconnected virtual reality where they can play games, fight, and make friends. And money. Lots and lots of money. That aspect is key, since the Oasis is, quite literally, the most valuable thing in the world, since everyone on the planet uses it. And for good reason. Inside the Oasis, you can do whatever, be whatever, you want. You want to climb Mount Everest with Batman? You got it. You wanna blow up the Death Star with Frodo? No problem. Anyway, when the creator of the Oasis dies, he hides a golden egg somewhere in the void, and the only way to access it is by completing three trials, each of which unlocks a special key. Finding the egg will result in the winner gaining complete control over the Oasis, something that literally everyone in the world, especially major corporations, wants. So the chase is on to see who will complete the Trials, find the egg, and take control over the Oasis. You want to find out who wins? Well, you’ll just have to buy a ticket and see for yourself.

Ready Player One is jaw dropping, pulse-pounding, pure nerd-gasmic joy. There is never a dull moment in this movie, and the creativity and energy with which this film’s world is drawn cannot be compared. If you’re a fan of video games, anime, comic books, or movies from the 80s, you will have so much fun with this flick. I certainly did. Seeing things like King Kong, the DeLorean from Back To The Future, and the motorcycle from Akira all coexisting in the same frame, and flipping over each other in a truly bonkers chase scene, made my inner child squeal with joy. Steven Spielberg was absolutely the right man to helm this picture. Not only did he create a lot of the pop culture icons referenced in this movie, but he really has a great sense for action, building worlds, and creating a sustained sense of wonder. And if you didn’t know after watching Schindler’s List, Lincoln, and Bridge Of Spies, he works really well with actors too. All the performances in this film are great. The stand outs, for me, are Lena Waithe, or as you may know her, Denise from Master Of None, Olivia Cooke as the female lead, and Ben Mendelsohn as the villain. All of them get the chance to shine, and they really are a lot of fun to watch. And, as if this needs saying, the special effects, music, editing and cinematography are all superb. If you want to go to the movies and watch something big, loud, and nerdy in the best possible way, this flick is for you.

Now, as much as I love Ready Player One, and, trust me, I’ll probably go see it two or three more times, I do have problems with it. Most of them are script related. For starters, the first fifteen minutes are extremely exposition heavy. There’s a lot of voice over, explaining what the Oasis is, and how it works, and, honestly, most of it is unnecessary. The opening shot shows our hero, Wade Watts, walking past people hooked up to VR devices, and we get brief glimpses of their inner fantasies. That shot has no dialogue whatsoever, and it tells us everything we need to know about the Oasis. All the extra voice over is just unnecessary. And as fun as the actors in this movie are, the characters they’re playing are kind of shallow. All we really know about Wade is that he’s an orphan, who lives with his AUnt, and she has an abusive boyfriend. That’s pretty much it. And it’s more ore less like that for all the other characters too. Yes, they have funny dialogue. Yes, they do cool things. But, if you were to ask me something personal about them, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Because there’s really nothing to them. So if you want to watch a film that has deep, fully fleshed-out characters, this picture probably isn’t for you. But if you just want to have a good time at the movies, without being talked down to, and have a deep love for the pop culture of a bygone era, don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Early Man (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

Millions of years ago, when mankind rode wooly mammoths and hunted dinosaurs, a meteor fell to Earth. And when they saw it, these early humans decided to use it, not for tools or technology, but as a ball. That’s right. A ball. And through their various experimentations with it, the game of football (soccer, for all us Americans) was born. Now, many centuries later, the descendants of the first footballers dwell in a valley, and eek out a living hunting rabbits. But when they are driven out by a group of bronze users because of the ore underneath their village, these plucky Cro Magnons devise a scheme to get rid of the invaders. If they can beat them in a game of football, the bronze people will have to leave their valley for good. So now it’s time for them to train, get into shape, and reconnect with their ball kicking roots.

Early Man is a primary example of the old saying, “it’s not the idea that counts; it’s the execution.” On paper, Early Man is just a generic sports movie. You’ve got a group of underdogs challenging the rich people to a competition, wherein the fate of their home/community center/business will be determined. That’s the exact plot of Step Up, Honey, Silver Linings Playbook, The Bad News Bears, and a million other terrible movies like them. What makes Early Man unique is the fact that it’s claymation, and the fact that it’s got an interesting setting; the stone age. Apart from that, it is identical to all those other movies. Is that a bad thing? Well…

The animation is genuinely impressive. This is the latest film from Nick Park, the creator of Wallace & Gromit, and this film continues his track record of entertaining, well-directed family fare. The character movements are fluid, the world feels real, and there is a ton of great visual comedy in this picture. As a matter of fact, the humor is probably this movie’s greatest asset. Without it, this film would be generic and dull. With it, however, it becomes something very witty and charming. For that reason, I do think the movie is worth a watch. IF you’ve got kids, or are just a fan of Nick Park, you won’t regret going to see this movie. That said, it isn’t nearly as good as some of his earlier work. Part of this has to do with the fact that the plot, and the characters, are so stock. If you take away the animation and the humor, it’s nothing special at all. And the filmmakers seem to know this. If you watch the trailers for this movie, there is no mention whatsoever of sports or football, which is ironic when you consider that that’s literally what the entire picture is about. It’s almost as though they realize that if they sold this as what it is, a generic sports movie, no one would go see it. That says something.

Even so, I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t like this movie. Is it original? No. But it’s sweet, funny, and well-animated. And, for most people, that’ll be enough.

Black Panther (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Thousands of years ago, a meteor containing the precious metal vibranium crash-landed in Africa, and, upon finding it, five tribes banded together to create the nation of Wakanda, and used their discovery to become the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth. But, rather than share their knowledge with the world, or help other African peoples when they were being colonized and enslaved, the Wakandans kept to themselves, and even went so far as to kill those who tried to cross their borders. For centuries, the Black Panthers, the rulers of Wakanda, have kept up this tradition. Now, though, the new Black Panther, T’Challa, must decide whether or not he will continue to uphold this practice, as their is an outsider, an American of Wakandan descent, who is challenging him for the throne, and who believes Wakanda should use its technology to help Black people across the globe rise up and take control.

Black Panther is a movie I was very excited for. Not only is it directed by one of my favorite new filmmakers, Ryan Coogler, it’s starring some of my favorite actors, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and its a genre film that touches upon social issues. You might not have noticed, but I’m kind of a sucker for those. So when I sat down in the theater today, I was pumped. I was there. And when I walked out, I was very satisfied. Black Panther is a lot of fun, and I do think you all should see it. In terms of pure craftsmanship, acting, cinematography, costumes, music, I have no complaints whatsoever. This is a gorgeous looking, and sounding, movie. And everyone in the film gives it their all. The stand-outs, for me, are Michael B Jordan as the ruthless, but highly sympathetic villain, Eric, and Danai Gurira as the Wakandan general Okoye. Both give highly memorable, highly charismatic performances. I also like the world this film created, with Wakanda looking absolutely stunning, and I really enjoyed the questions it raises. For all these reasons, I definitely think Black Panther is worth a watch.

That said, I do have problems with the movie. And I realize that, by saying that, I just earned the ire of a substantial portion of the internet. But I don’t care. I want to make movies, and the best way to do that is to learn from the flaws of others, and this film has a few. For starters, there is a long, long stretch where nothing of much import happens. There are a lot of scenes where we basically get told the history of Wakanda, and, while they are necessary to understanding the world, they don’t really advance the plot in any way. Hell, the main plot, Eric coming to Wakanda to claim the throne and begin a global revolution, doesn’t really materialize until about an hour in. That’s a pretty long wait. Now, I do want to be clear and say that that first hour isn’t boring, but, if you cut several subplots out, including a whole sequence in Korea where the heroes chase down Andy Serkis, the movie would be tighter, and more interesting. The conflict between Eric and T’Challa, between new and old, globalism and isolationism, is fascinating, and considerably more compelling than Andy Serkis wanting money. On top of this, T’Challa, the main character, is kind of bland. Part of this has to do with the fact that all of the supporting characters are so interesting, with his sister, Shuri, his general, Okoye, and mother, Ramanda, all being highly charismatic and fun, but it also has to do with the fact that he’s a very passive protagonist. What I mean by that is, in most films, a character actively tries to accomplish a real, tangible thing, like winning a contest, finding a killer, or finishing an art project. In so doing, they realize that they possess a certain flaw, and change. Now when I say they “actively” pursue the goal, I mean they make the first moves, as opposed to just reacting to things. It’s the difference between Raiders Of The Lost Ark, where Indie chooses to go after the ark, and devises several of the strategies for getting it, and Superman: The Movie, where Clark Kent only decides to be a superhero after the ghost of his father tells him to. For a substantial portion of Black Panther, T’Challa doesn’t have a goal. He doesn’t want any one, tangible thing, like an arc, a grail, or the meaning of the word “rosebud.” He just walks around, and responds to what other people tell him. And then, when the main plot does kick in, he still remains highly reactive. Yes, he undergoes a change, realizing after fighting Eric that Wakanda needs to share its technology with the rest of the world, but he himself doesn’t really want anything. And, finally, as impressive as the film is in terms of its acting, cinematography  and music, there are moments here where the CGI is surprisingly bad. In one scene, for instance, Eric and T’Challa are fighting on a train track, and there were moments where they were flipping around that took me out of the picture because of how fake everything looked. And in another scene, T’Challa is gazing up at this cliffside where all these various Wakandan tribes are standing, and it looked like elements that were just copied and pasted onto the frame. Which is disappointing. This film had such a huge budget, and so many talented people working on it that I’m honestly kind of shocked it had such shoddy CGI.

All that said, the good in Black Panther far outweighs the bad. This is a well-acted, beautiful-looking, highly thought-provoking superhero film, which does what I don’t think any superhero film has done before, and that’s tell its story from a distinctly black, distinctly African perspective. For that reason, coupled with some superb performances, I say, go out and see this. You won’t regret it.

Underrated Directors Who Should Totally Helm A Blockbuster

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Directors; to many casual film goers, they are the driving force behind all aspects of a movie. And while those of us who actually work in film, writing scripts, editing footage, mixing sound and so on, know that this isn’t true, it is true that directors can have a huge influence on a picture’s look, tone, and style. And that look and style can attract audiences, and make the pictures better as a whole. Now there are certain directors whose look and style have become well known to the public–the Spielbergs, the Burtons, the Tarantinos–but there are others whose talent is clear when you watch their films but, for whatever reason, they and their work have remained out of the spotlight. I’d like to remedy that today. Here is my list of awesome, underrated directors who should totally helm a blockbuster. Why a blockbuster? Because that’s what most people see, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s the only way most of us will ever hear about these artists.

1. Bong Joon-Ho.

  • What They’ve Done: The Host, Snowpiercer, Okja.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Star Wars Movie.

Perhaps the best-known filmmaker on this list, Bong Joon-Ho is one of my all-time favorite directors, and a household name back in his native Korea. And yet, despite all his critical and commercial success in Asia, he remains relatively unknown in the West. Film nerds have probably watched a few of his flicks, but the vast majority of audiences aren’t familiar with his sumptuous visuals, dark humor, sudden shifts in tone, and biting social commentary, all of which make him ideal to helm a Star Wars movie. Just watch The Host, see how he shoots action, writes villainous characters, and uses creature effects, and tell me you couldn’t see him directing an episode in a galaxy far, far away.

2. Jaume Collet-Serra.

  • What They’ve Done: Non-Stop, The Shallows, Orphan.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A MIssion Impossible Movie.

Best known for his many collaborations with Liam Neeson, Spanish director Jaume Collet Serra has a habit of taking silly genre scripts, and turning them into much better films than they have any right to be. Seriously. If you take a hard look at the plots of any of his features–Unknown, Non-Stop, Orphan–they don’t really hold up. But the films themselves are so well-acted, so beautifully shot, and so viscerally entertaining that you don’t really care. Which makes him an ideal match for the Mission Impossible franchise, which, let’s be honest, isn’t  really famous for having the most believable story lines, but whose insane action set pieces more than make up for that. And let’s not forget, several of Collet-Serra’s flicks, like Unknown, have espionage elements to them. So it’s not altogether out of his wheelhouse.

3. Wes Ball.

  • What They’ve Done: The Maze Runner Trilogy.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Fast & Furious Movie.

Say what you like about the Maze Runner films–I, personally, am not a huge fan–they have amazing action sequences. Even these movies’ harshest critics agree that the chases, the fight scenes, and the stunt work are incredible, and that the director, Wes Ball, has a good eye for action. So what better franchise to put him in than the Fast & Furious, which we all can agree is extremely light on story, but very heavy on amazing set pieces? I have no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Ball could concoct some truly bonkers action scenes, and give this series’ fans the high octane thrills they crave.

4. Mike Flanagan.

  • What They’ve Done: Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Batman Movie.

One of this generations true horror masters, Mike Flanagan’s films work, not just because they’re beautifully shot, and possess ghosts and serial killers, but because of their fascinating explorations of their characters’ pasts and psyches. Gerald’s Game and Oculus are all about people revisiting childhood trauma, and trying to work through it. And if there’s one blockbuster franchise that relishes horror, and childhood trauma, it’s Batman. He’s a tormented character, who just can’t let his past go, and several of his rogues, the Joker, Scarecrow, Two Face, are horrifying manifestations of various mental illnesses. So who better to helm a Batman film than a horror master with an interest in dissecting the minds of damaged people? Well, okay, I’m sure there are loads of filmmakers who’d be totally great for Batman, but Mike Flanagan is at the top of my list.

5. Takashi Miike.

  • What They’ve Done: 13 Assassins, Audition, Ichi The Killer.
  • What I’d Like Them To Do: A Predator Movie.

A prolific and controversial director, whose work I’ve written about before, Takashi Miike is perfectly suited for the Predator franchise. Why? Because just like John McTiernan’s 1987 classic, which began as action, and ended as horror, many of Miike’s films blend genres and tones. Several of his features, like Yakuza Apocalypse and Ichi The Killer, synthesize elements of thrillers and horror. Many more, like Fudoh: The New Generation, Blade Of The Immortal, and Terra Formers, include insane, stylized characters with insane, stylized weapons i.e. the exact kind of fighters that the Predators would want to hunt. And, as if this needs mentioning, Miike is superb at crafting creative, bloody fight sequences, which are precisely what this franchise thrives off of.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

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While waiting for the holidays to end, young Mary follows a Black Cat into the woods, where she discovers some mysterious blue flowers. And being a child in a fantasy film, she, of course, touches them. As soon as she does so, she finds herself transported to a fantastic new world, full of magic, amazing technology, and bizarre creatures. And, much to her chagrin, she can now fly, turn invisible, and do all sorts of amazing things. But not all is as it seems to be, as Mary quickly discovers that she can only do magic while in possession of the flower, and, more importantly, that some in this new world may want it for nefarious reasons.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is pure visual joy. It’s beautifully-animated, superbly scored, and the sheer imagination with which its world is drawn cannot be compared. On the basis of its creativity and originality alone, I say, go out and see it. At the same time, however, I would be remiss if I told you that I liked this film. Did I hate it? No. But I certainly didn’t love it either. And a lot of it comes down to poor storytelling.

There are a great many things that get introduced in this flick that either never get brought up again, or just don’t get the attention they deserve. Things like Mary’s parents being away, or her friend, Peter’s, troubled home life, are some of the details that get introduced, only to never be brought up again, while a fantastical school for witches, and Mary’s family’s mysterious past, are just a few interesting aspects that are touched upon, but never fully explored. Which is a real shame. When you see the school that Mary visits, how truly imaginative it is, and realize that it’s not going to be a big part of the film, you find yourself going, “Aw. But I liked where that was headed.” There are also some technical details that bugged me in this picture, like how the English dub was kind of wooden, and how it never really matched with the characters’ mouths’ movements. But by far the biggest complaint I have about this film is the hero, and the villains. In a good film, you’ll have a character who is flawed, but likable, and, by the end of the story, after undergoing many hardships, he or she will emerge a better person. Mary doesn’t really undergo any kind of change. They set it up like she’s going to have this big arc, with her being very clumsy, and not being able to help anyone, despite her best efforts. But, by the end of the film, she’s pretty much exactly the same person as before. I’m not even joking when I tell you that her hair has a bigger arc in this movie than she does. And that’s not even getting into the villains. Good villains have clear goals, and, if written properly, understandable intentions. Mary and the Witch’s Flower has half of that, since you understand what the villains are trying to do, but you don’t really understand why. Which is super frustrating. If you have bad guys who are doing bad things, seemingly just for the heck of it, you can’t get invested in their conflict with the heroes, and just wind up zoning out. Which is never good, since the goal of all film is to entertain.

So, in the end, I don’t really know how to rate Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In terms of visuals, music, and pure originality, it can’t be compared. So, on that level, I say, watch it. At the same time, however, the underdeveloped villains, uninteresting hero, and plethora of abandoned plot threads make it hard to get into it on anything deeper than a visual level. Make of this what you will.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.

While stuck in detention, four high schoolers, nerd Spencer, jock Fridge, antisocial Martha, and phone-addicted Bethany, discover a mysterious video game called Jumanji. Figuring, “hey, we’ve got nothing better to do,” the four decide to play the game, and choose avatars. When they do so, however, they find themselves transported to the jungle world of Jumanji, and the bodies of their respective characters. Now, if they want to make it home alive, they’ll have to win the game, and avoid all the danger getting thrown their way.

Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is a film I had absolutely no expectations for. I wasn’t even planning on seeing it, until my girlfriend suggested we give it a watch. And I am so happy she did, because this is a really fun movie. Seriously. This is probably the most fun I’ve had in a theater in almost two years. Which is weird, because, 2017 saw the release of a ton of great blockbusters–Logan, Wonder Woman, The Last Jedi, etc. But, the truth is, with each of those films, there was always something that held me back from just having a good time with them. With The Last Jedi, for instance, it was the knowledge that this was a Star Wars movie, and that there’d inevitably be angry fanboy backlash. With Wonder Woman, it was the knowledge that this was a female-led tentpole film with a lot riding on it, so please, please, please let it be good. And so on, and so forth. With Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, however, I had no expectations. There was no baggage. As such, I could just sit back and enjoy the ride. And did I ever!

What works in this film is the humor, the chemistry between the leads, some very inventive action set-pieces, and the fact that these are actually very likable characters. Which is surprising. When I hear that the protagonists of a movie are going to be a nerd, a jock, a prissy girl, and a misanthrope, I instantly think, “Oh god, I know exactly how this’ll go down. The’ll be insufferable.” But they really weren’t. Each of them had distinct voices, personalities, interests, and each, in their own way, was very funny. I liked them as teenagers. I liked them as characters in a video game. And the actors playing them were perfectly cast. Jack Black steals the show as Bethany’s avatar in the game. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are comedy gold when they’re on screen. And Karen Gillan manages to be  fierce, sexy, and adorably awkward all at the same time. I laughed out loud at several points in this movie, and there were moments of action where I was legitimately on the edge of my seat. For this reason, I’d say, give Jumanji a look. It is a fun, fast-paced time at the movies. Is it deep? No. Is it groundbreaking? Not really. But the characters are likable. The action is exciting. The humor hits 90% of the time, and it’s just a great ride to be on.