Category Archives: animation

“Isle of Dogs” a lot of fun

Wes Anderson makes the same movie again and again, just in a different format. For some filmmakers (Tim Burton), the formula has become stale and tedious. For Anderson, with his kinetic style and dry wit, it’s still fun for the time being.

“Isle of Dogs” tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young boy and ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). After dogs are deemed a public health crisis after a string of diseases is associated with them, all dogs in Japan are shipped to a trash island far away. Atari runs away from his home, steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Shreiber). He befriends a group of dogs including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who agree to help him find Spots. Chief, the only stray of the group, is a reluctant ally and resents humans for what they’ve done, but as he grows to know Atari, his emotions change.

The film is a visual feast, with the swift camera pans accentuated by the vibrant colors and smooth animation. Anderson has always done a good job of focusing the viewer’s eye to his subject and exemplifying the film’s emotions through the actions on the screen. Whether it’s a closeup of a character’s eyes as they come to a realization or a chaotic zoom in to emphasize a shocking turn of events, he uses film composition to keep his stories interesting and heartfelt.

He also continues to display his unique wit and charm. The main characters have interesting personality quirks and story arcs and the script keeps the action going at a brisk, never-boring pace. Things move fast and the audience is rewarded for keeping up with his trademark jokes.

For Anderson though, his repetitive style is beginning to border on unoriginality. There are enough differentiations in theme and plot to keep his films interesting for the time being, but like many others before him, his movies are all starting to feel the same: dysfunctional family, long lost relatives, quirky side characters, prestige vs. instinct quarrels, blatant yet funny dialogue, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. There is a risk that he may soon seem to be parodying himself and that would demean his otherwise strong stories.

And a continuous problem with Anderson in all of his movies is his lack of female characters. Not only are they not protagonists, they are distinctly lacking everywhere onscreen. The vast majority of his characters are white males. And the women of the story serve mostly as companions or sex objects (not in an overt, callous way but in a matter-of-fact way). They are distant and detached or committed to a cause past thought of their own lives. It would be interesting for him to branch out not only in his style, but also his cast list. Many of the roles in his films could indeed be women characters, but he has trouble writing that way.

Ultimately, “Isle of Dogs” succeeds not only as another strong Anderson film that fits into his canon, but also because it mirrors current events. It’s a story about the outsider who benefits society, about government manipulation to find a common enemy to consolidate power, about abusing the environment and leaving our children messes and trash, about the importance of science and reason over preconceived biases and about our basic communication with nature, respecting and cultivating it. It’s a beautiful story that exemplifies what Anderson does best.

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“Coco” is gorgeous, heartwarming

Tackling a subject like death in a children’s film is a tough balancing act. You can’t be too light or else risk seeming disingenuous. Too serious however and the film can become a morbid mess. Pixar has done a good job of straddling that line in films such as “Toy Story 2” and “Up” and they continue that streak with “Coco.” Their success lies in finding the silver lining in finite life: joy in family and experience over despair and anguish.

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, “Coco” tells the story of Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy kept from playing music by an old family superstition. When he is accidentally transported to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, he must find his great-great-grandfather and gain his blessing to return before he becomes a spirit as well. He recruits Hector (voice of Gael Garcia Bernal), a bumbling castaway, to aid him in his quest.

The film is a beautifully told, if ultimately somewhat familiar, tale. The land of the dead may be one of the most impressive animated environments ever created, full of bright colors, depth and brilliant hues. The imagination behind the construction of the dead characters and the spirit creatures is superb. The film plays out like an old fable told from generation to generation, timeless as it confronts childhood acceptance, manifest destiny and the concept of eternal familial love.

The music is respectable, if not exactly memorable, but it’s the emotions they represent that imbue them with cinematic power. When Miguel sings, it’s a reflection of his desire to live, an oxymoron considering he’s in the land of the dead.

A weak point however is the film’s second act twist. Pixar has always done a good job of building up their films with complex characters and themes only sometimes to feature stereotypical hollow villains. In “Up”, there is Charles Muntz. In “Brave”, there’s Mor’du. In “Wall-E”, there’s Otto. They do sometimes make a complicated antagonist such as Ego in “Ratatouille” or Lotso in “Toy Story 3”, but the twist in “Coco”, and the villain that permeates through the final act of the film, diminishes an otherwise strong story with a higher degree of schmaltz than is necessary.

But “Coco” is an otherwise solid film, fun and ultimately joyous with plenty to love and remember.

Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

“Minions” is a boring cashgrab

The appeal of the minions in the Despicable Me series is that they’re funny. When the action and drama takes place, they are there for the comic relief and for a bit of heart as well, reinforcing the emotion of Gru or his adopted daughters. So when they are given their own separate film minus their usual co-stars, something is inherently missing right off the bat. They’re not funny anymore. And that, for an animated film, is deadly.

Minions begins with the formation of the minions, at the dawn of life on earth. They have always sought out the biggest, baddest being to serve, but almost always unwittingly causing their leader’s downfall. They go into a form of self-exile, lost without their life’s purpose. Three minions, Kevin, Stuart and Bob, set out to find a new boss in the summer of 1969. They find Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her husband Herb (Jon Hamm) who stage a plan to steal Queen Elizabeth’s crown.

There was such heavy promotion for the film that nearly all of the best parts have already been seen by the viewer by the time they get to the theater. The result is a harmless and pretty forgettable outing with everyone’s favorite sidekicks.

This is the main problem: the minions are sidekicks. They work best when they are reacting rather than initiating the plot. Viewers will yearn for Gru, Agnes and the others and the emotional pillar they represent. For reference, think to Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow or the Hulk; they work best as part of an ensemble, a supporting player, not as the main character (to highlight just part of the problems with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the two solo Hulk films).

The rest of the film is uninspired. That may actually be worse than being a terrible film; you at least remember a terrible film. Minions is instantly forgotten upon leaving the theater.

‘The Peanuts’ just a retread of previous material

Everyone loves Charles Schulz’s “The Peanuts.” We all have our favorite character: Sally or Lucy or Schroeder or Linus or Peppermint Patty or Snoopy or, of course, everyone’s favorite loser, Charlie Brown. They’ve entered into the public consciousness with cartoons, comic strips, amusement parks, an iconic musical score and several beloved animated shorts to their credit. They’ve been around for almost 70 years. So it is only natural that 20th Century Fox want to capitalize on their appeal with a full-length motion picture. When dealing with such a beloved franchise the decision to take risks becomes muted and the desire to ramp up the nostalgia becomes bloated. And “The Peanuts Movie” suffers mightily, not so much a film as much as an attempt to sell the nostalgia of years past into profit for the here and now.

Charlie Brown has been a loser his entire life. All of his classmates know it. He’s reminded of his incompetency everyday. His own favorite star at night drops out of the sky away from him. And then a new student moves in, a little red-haired girl, someone who has never met or heard of Charles before. Here’s his chance for a new start, to make a good impression. And on top of that, he immediately falls in love with her.

Now, it is commendable for the filmmakers to not stray as far from the source material as other adaptations (i.e. “The Smurfs” movies). Snoopy has his own adventure, but he doesn’t dance to a pop song or take up the majority of screen time simply because he’s cute. There are no fart jokes or belch jokes or pop culture tie-ins (Justin Bieber does not appear as a Peanut-ized version of himself). Everything stays true to Schulz’s original work for the most part and that in itself, in this day and age, is a major accomplishment.

Having said that, the animation is peculiar, a mixture of 3-D graphics done in a 2-D style, meant to harken back to the original cartoon shorts. It is obvious that the studio felt that audiences would not go to see a 2-D movie done in the Peanuts style anymore, but didn’t want to abandon the look of the shorts completely. It is a shame, because it is undeniable that audiences would still go to a movie based off the original animation. Part of the charm of “The Peanuts” is their simplicity, captured perfectly in the hand drawn style of the shorts, and this hybrid 3-D and 2-D animation feels manufactured, unnatural and overly colorful for the material.

Another flaw (and it is a continual flaw that keeps rearing its ugly head in animation) is the inherent sexism of the film. It is not as flagrant as other films of this nature (i.e. again, “The Smurfs”), but do audiences really need a pink, female Snoopy dog? Does the little red-haired girl need to be so pristine, white and perfect, and does she need a bright, fluffy and shiny pink pencil? And given such limited screentime, Lucy appears more of a bitch than a bossy little girl for being proactive and demanding. Sexism (and racism) continue to plague most major Hollywood productions with its continued insistence on what constitutes femininity and after years of such social progress, it is incredibly disheartening to keep seeing it again and again in film.

The ultimate issue with “The Peanuts Movie”, however, is not that it is a bad movie, but that it is such a safe movie. There is virtually no new material. Everything is piggy-backed from the comics or the animated shorts. It is amazing how afraid the filmmakers were of attempting to add anything new to the Peanuts mythos. One might as well watch the shorts again at home.

Now, the argument will be made that the movie is meant to be an introductory film to the characters for a new generation, that this is a “kid’s movie” and should not be held to the same standard as an adult film. You will see this critique mentioned by a lot of critics (as justification for a positive review which explains why the film has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But by lowering these expectations, we diminish the demands of the children’s genre and our appreciation of the quality animated film.

In many ways, it is a cycle of ineptitude where the studio underestimates the audience and comes out with a film like “The Peanuts Movie” that is unoriginal and rooted in nostalgia over creativity, and then critics justify the studio’s laziness with the refrain that it is only meant for children, and it isn’t as terrible as other films. The industry deserves better.

‘Despicable Me 3’ is harmlessly forgettable

The premise of the “Despicable Me” franchise is fairly straightforward: A supervillain adopts three girls and learns how to be a father. That is the first film, and the story is told very well. The problem for the franchise is how do you build upon that concept in successive films. And the filmmakers don’t really have an answer to that conundrum.

“Despicable Me 3” features a returning Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). When the newest villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) appears on the scene, the two brothers work together to bring him down for different reasons. Also returning are Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) as well as Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig).

The problem with the film is that it never endeavors to advance the characters in any meaningful way. Since Gru has become a father, he has never been tested internally. Dru is a pointless distraction to the supposed real heart of the franchise: Gru learning to be a father and part of a family.

With Lucy in the fold now, there are plenty of opportunities for storylines involving the family: Perhaps Margo is a teenager now and is tempted by the life of villainy her father aspired to and her mother despises. Maybe Edith gets into trouble at school and Gru has to help her confront her issues. Perhaps Agnes is kidnapped by an evil unicorn. The girls and their relationship with Gru are never really explored and that leaves Gru distant from the emotional stakes in the film. They should be at the heart of the story.

The minions, thankfully, are kept to a minimum in screentime and story purpose. After their awful standalone film, the filmmakers have realized that their appeal (what’s left of it) is best situated to short bursts (at least until their film has a sequel).

There are a few chuckles in the film, but nothing all that memorable, which can be said for everything as a whole. Balthazar adds some good bits and the film is lighthearted and endearing at moments, but the story and gags lack originality. This is the fourth go around for the franchise and things are stale. There are only so many minion jokes.

“Despicable Me 3” is by no means a terrible film. It’s just an unmemorable one. The filmmakers have worn out their original concept and don’t know where else to go with the franchise. In this case, perhaps that means moving on to a new story.