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.

A Wrinkle In Time (2018)

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

Meg Murray is a troubled child. Her father, a scientist for NASA, has been missing for nearly 4 years, the kids at school are mean to her, and even the teachers think she’s a lost cause. The only person who gets her is her little brother, Charles Wallace, a 4-year-old genius who seems to be able to read minds. One night, a “dark and stormy night” as the characters themselves put it, a strange woman, Mrs. Whatsit, appears on their doorstep, and casually tells them that tesseracts, the ability to teleport to other realms by bending space-time, are real. Seeing as these were the very things Meg’s father was investigating before he disappeared, Meg’s Mother, who is also a scientist, is mortified. Things only get crazier from there when two other strange women, Mrs. Who, a being who only speaks in famous quotes, and Mrs. Which, who is Oprah, appear out of nowhere, and take Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s crush, Calvin, on an adventure to save their father from “IT.”

A Wrinkle In Time is adapted from one of my favorite children’s books, it’s got some of my favorite actors–like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Chris Pine–in it, and it’s directed by a woman of color, Ava DuVernay. I WANT to like this movie. I NEED to like this movie. And yet, I don’t like this movie. Like, at all. About fifteen minutes in, I knew that the film wasn’t going to get any better. And when I realized that, I felt a small part of my soul die. (Not really, but you get the point).

This movie is cheesy, poorly-acted, and has some surprisingly bad special effects in it.  There’s one scene in particular, where Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a giant lettuce leaf monster, where I literally burst out laughing at how bad the CGI was. The costumes and hairstyles, particularly of the three Misses, are also extremely gaudy and ridiculous looking. Oprah, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon, God bless them all, have to wear these absurd poofy dresses that look like they were ripped right out of Elizabethan England, and Oprah has to act through this silly-looking wig that looks like it was taken right off of RuPaul’s head. And as bad as the special effects and costumes are, they’ve got nothing on the stilted dialogue. I kid you not, there are scenes in this movie, like the one where two teachers “talk” about Charles Wallace and Meg’s back-story, where the dialogue is physically painful to listen to.

Now before you accuse me of being too hard on this movie, it does have admirable qualities. Oprah, Mindy and Reese all do great jobs. The cinematography is very nice. And the film has a Black, female protagonist, who is interested in science, something you didn’t see that much until Black Panther came out. And as revered as the film’s source material is, it’s also kind of cheesy, so you can’t really blame the film for being that as well. Seriously, I went back and revisited A Wrinkle In Time before the film came out, and, as an adult, I noticed two things about it; one, it’s a lot more religious than I remembered, and two, it’s really, really cheesy. Like, Meg defeats the main villain through “the power of love”cheesy. Ugh. But none of that changes the fact that the CGI is bad, the dialogue is painful to listen to, Storm Reid, who plays Meg, is kind of stiff, and the actor playing Charles Wallace is annoying. So, in the end, good intentions and a strong cast aren’t enough to make this film worth watching. I feel like the studio should have waited until Ava DuVernay had done two or three more low budget movies before they gave her the reigns to a $100 million tentpole flick. After all, you need to try and fail a couple times before you know what your strengths are. Bottom line is, you don’t need to see this picture.

Big Fish & Begonia (2016)

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

It’s long been said that heaven is in the sky, somewhere far above the clouds. In reality, however, it is deep beneath the sea, in a place where fish can fly, and ocean waves float above mountains. The inhabitants of this place, the Others, as they call themselves, have special abilities, controlling wind, fire, plant life and so on. And when they turn sixteen, they must undergo a rite of passage, wherein they live in the human world for seven days as a fish. Chun is one of these Others and, come time for her rite of passage, she goes out into the human world as a red dolphin. While exploring, however, she gets caught in a net, and is  saved by a human boy, who drowns in the process. Full of guilt, Chun returns to her world, and begs the keeper of souls to resurrect the boy. The Keeper agrees, but only if Chun gives up half her life-span. Chun does so, and is given the boy’s soul, which, in this realm, is a little baby fish, which she must nurture until it is grown enough to fly back up to the human world. Unfortunately for her, the boy’s presence in her realm throws everything out of order, and, soon, all the Others come after her and the little fish.

Big Fish & Begonia is a film that I never would have heard of, were it not for my girlfriend. And I am so glad she told me about it, because, this movie is INSANE. Seriously! The creativity with which this world is drawn cannot be compared. Imagine if, instead of letting M Night Shyamalan do his garbage live-action adaptation, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender had made a big-budget, feature length animated movie. That’s the general look and feel of this film. The landscapes are breathtaking, the character movements are fluid, and the way that magic looks in this world is superb. This film was a huge hit when it came out in China back in 2016, and I can understand why. If movies are all about escapism, about taking you to another plane, this film does that in spades. It’ll be getting a North American release in April, so, if you want to watch something creative and beautiful, give this flick a look.

But go in with tempered expectations. As pretty as this film is, it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And it all comes down to poor, and I mean poor, storytelling. Characters who you think will be important get introduced, only to disappear halfway through, the rules of magic drastically change from scene to scene,  and the main protagonist, Chun, not only doesn’t grow, but is kind of unlikable. What I mean by that is, she constantly makes drastic, highly risky decisions, like giving up half her lifespan to save a boy she doesn’t know, or forcing her grandfather to use his last bit of magic to save another boy (yeah, she gets another kid killed), and even keeping the fish in her home after she realizes that his presence there is actively destroying her world. Throughout the story, she constantly puts other people in danger because of her selfish need to not feel guilty, and she never really faces any consequences for that. That’s not good. And, like I said, the rules of magic constantly change throughout this story. First, Chun needs to raise the soul fish until it is big enough to return to the human world. Then, for some reason, the fish can’t return to the human world, because, if it does, she will die. But then, oh no, the fish does need to return to the human world, because its presence in the magical realm is actively destroying it. Ugh! The inconsistency of the mythology is truly mind-boggling. This is almost like an animated version of House Of Flying Daggers, where it’s a story that only makes sense to the eye. Speaking of House Of Flying Daggers, this film also has a love-triangle in it. Fortunately, neither of the male leads try to rape Chun (thank god), but, the love-triangle aspect is also highly frustrating. See, Chun loves the fish boy, whom she names Kun, but another boy, Qiu, loves Chun. And, throughout the story, Qiu does everything in his power to help her. I mean he bends over backwards for her. And, in the end, not only does he not get to be with Chun, he winds up dying in the process of helping them escape. And when Chun and Kun return to the human world, there’s no mention of Qiu or his sacrifice at all. The hell, man? Why include that subplot if you’re not even going to acknowledge it? Sigh.

But, like I said before, this film is truly visionary with regards to its animation. And the fact that it is a big budget Chinese animated film, which you don’t see very often, makes it extra special. So, go ahead and watch it for the visuals, but don’t expect much else.

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.

Coco (2017)

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

Miguel Rivera is a young Mexican boy, descended from a long line of shoemakers. Many years ago, his great, great grandfather left his wife and child to pursue a career in music, a betrayal which lead to all vocal and instrumental sounds being banned in the Rivera household. Miguel, however, yearns to become a Mariachi, idolizing the now-dead musician, Ernesto de la Cruz. So, to prove to his family that he is a talented guitar player, and that he should be allowed to pursue music, Miguel signs up for the day of the dead talent show. Problem is, he doesn’t have a guitar, and no one will lend one to him. So he decides, “screw trying to buy one. I’m gonna go rob a tomb.” And that’s precisely what he does; breaking in to Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum, and taking the dead man’s guitar. However, as soon as he touches the instrument, he finds himself transported to the realm of the dead. Now, if he wants to get home, he must find his ancestors, and receive their blessing. Problem is, they want him to go back under the agreement that he will never play music again, and Miguel isn’t willing to accept this. So he decides to track down the ghost of Ernesto de la Cruz, whom he has convinced himself is, in fact, the great, great grandfather who abandoned his family all those years ago, and receive his blessing instead. Will he do so? You’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

If you’ve read my review for Finding Dory, you know that I love Pixar movies. I’ve loved them literally my entire life. And yet, despite that, I didn’t really plan on seeing Coco. Pixar’s movies, while all fairly high in quality, do vacillate between emotionally devastating all-ages entertainment, like Toy Story, Up and Inside Out, and more simplistic, kid-friendly fare, such as Cars, Monsters Inc, and The Good Dinosaur. After watching the trailers, it seemed clear to me that Coco was more of the latter than the former. And yet, I went to go see it anyway, and, I’ll say this, it was a lot better than I thought it would be. In terms of pure craftsmanship, animation, music, voice acting, the film is superb. The creativity with which the land of the dead is drawn is simply incredible. There’s one sequence in particular, where Miguel is walking through this terminal for the dead that legitimately made my jaw drop, partly because of how beautiful it was, and partly because of how much it reminded me of the Post Office in Mexico City, a historic building that you all should definitely visit. And there was a sequence towards the end where I really did tear up. So if you want to watch a gorgeous movie, which does have a heart, Coco is worth a look.

That said, it’s not one of Pixar’s best, probably because it doesn’t really feel like a Pixar movie. Most Pixar projects begin with a short film, which relates in tone and style to the main story. This one doesn’t. It also takes a while to get going, with me not really caring about the plot or the characters until they enter the realm of the dead. Then I was hooked, but that’s not until about 15 minutes in. And, finally, the film is kind of hard to buy into. What I mean by that is, certain things happen in it that don’t get explained, or just don’t jive with the rules that have been established for this world. For instance, Miguel spends the first few minutes telling you how music is banned in his household, and how if anything even remotely close to a musical note is heard, it is shut down. And yet, we see Miguel being an adept guitar player, and the movie never explains how he was able to learn to play the instrument, or how he was able to hide his skills for so long. Likewise, the film tells us that the only time ghosts can visit the land of the living is on Day Of The Dead, and yet, we see an animal, I won’t say which one, crossing over between the two realms on multiple occasions. That kind of bugged me. Now you might be thinking, “Nathan, you’re thinking way too hard about this,” and you’re probably right. But I’ve made it my career to write stories, and I can’t ignore it when a story’s narrative logic doesn’t add up. Did this error seriously hurt my viewing experience? Not really. But it did bug me, and I thought you all should know before you go see it, which I do still think you should.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

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

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.