Tag Archives: 2016

Only Yesterday ***½|****

Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday
Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday

Over the past 30 years, renowned Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has produced several of the Japan’s highest grossing anime films ever but since its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in late 2014, the studio’s future has been in limbo. Fortunately, fans in the US have a new reason to be excited, as one of Studio Ghibli’s seminal works is finally being made available for American audiences. First released in 1991, Only Yesterday is director Isao Takahata’s follow-up to the devastating war film Grave of the Fireflies that serves as a ebullient and life-affirming counterpoint to the overwhelming tragedy of his previous work.

We begin in 1982, where 27-year-old Taeko (Daisy Ridley) finds herself yearning for a more simplified way of life after having lived in the non-stop hustle and bustle of Tokyo her entire life. She decides to take a trip to visit relatives in the rural countryside but during her overnight train ride, Taeko is overcome with vivid memories from her schoolyard days that cause her to reflect on the purity and innocence of her childhood. The film wistfully tracks between this time period in 1966, where 10-year-old Taeko (Alison Fernandez) is just starting in the fifth grade, and the “present” time in 1982 that finds her helping her relatives harvest their seemingly endless fields of safflowers.

One of the artistic techniques that Takahata uses to differentiate between these two time periods is to depict the past with a sort of hazy glow around the edges of the frame but it’s not done in a way that calls too much attention to itself. Besides being a clever way to visually distinguish the story’s timeline, this also serves as a subtle commentary on how we tend to overly sentimentalize stories from our childhood when the memories become blurred and fuzzier as time goes on. The sharp, crisp animation style of urban Tokyo shows a world with clear limitations but the bright and dreamlike scenes from Taeko’s childhood suggest a largely undiscovered world with infinite possibilities.

The flashbacks play like extended vignettes that aren’t meant to relay specific sets of plot-relevant details but rather convey the feeling of longing that the main character is consumed with during her later years. These stories seem to come about in an almost random order but nonetheless cover a wide range of emotional territory: some are bittersweet, some are heartbreaking and some are quite amusing as well. An awkward first exchange between Taeko and her first childhood crush, during which the two share a hilariously unproductive conversation about whether they prefer cloudy or sunny days, perhaps best captures all three of these sentiments within one scene.

The coming-of-age material is very effective on its own but ultimately, this is a story of a young woman coming to terms with her past and deciding to break free from the burdens and expectations of her friends and family. The movie’s originally title translates roughly from Japanese to “memories trickle down” but it turns out that Only Yesterday is an even more evocative and appropriate title after all. It not only captures this film’s signature brand of charming nostalgia but also serves as a potent reminder that the past can be rendered inconsequential for those willing to overcome it.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½|****

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Two titans of the superhero genre square off for the first time on the big screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a needlessly dour and overwhelmingly senseless affair that hopelessly squanders an intriguing premise. Director Zack Synder’s follow-up to Man of Steel is one of the most distracted and disjointed action films I’ve ever seen: a result of way too many ideas being thrown around carelessly with no guiding vision. Even the incoherent plotting and the muddled character motivations could have been overlooked if this movie was any fun but it even manages to forget how to have a good time at all.

We pick up two years after the events of Man of Steel, where a devastating battle at the heart of Metropolis has led to intensified scrutiny surrounding Superman (Henry Cavill) from numerous parties. Most notable among his newfound objectors is neighboring city Gotham’s Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who views him as a lawless alien and an imminent threat to the safety of the entire planet. After being coaxed by Metropolis business magnate Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Wayne seeks an opportunity to face off against Superman as Batman and save their collective cities from any further destruction.

I’ve intentionally left out the innumerable contrivances that lead to these two figures being pitted against each other but it’s important to reiterate just how overstuffed and out of control this narration is. Characters are introduced and re-introduced at such a breakneck pace that plausible development and motivations don’t have a chance to manifest themselves organically from the story. If you don’t already have at least a passing familiarity with most of these comic book characters, I can’t imagine how confusing this movie will be for you. Each scene vacillates so wildly from one narrative thread to another without the slightest sense of tactful cohesion or thoughtful storytelling. There’s just no time for anything meaningful in Batman v Superman.

Beyond the whirlwind of narrative disconnect, just about any shred of spectacle or wonder is undermined by the oppressively brooding nature of the film’s look and feel. Zack Snyder collaborates with his go-to cinematographer Larry Fong to create a vision of Gotham and Metropolis so glum, it makes Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy look positively buoyant by comparison. I don’t have a problem with dark storytelling in comic book adaptions (recent Netflix series Jessica Jones did an excellent job of this) but it’s not enough to just be “gritty”: there has to be an underlying intelligence that informs the stylistic choices.

I sat through Batman v Superman thinking “why does something like The Avengers work so much better than this?” It turns out that there are plenty of answers to that question but most importantly, Marvel has done an excellent job in taking their time to flesh out their characters before bringing them all together. Clearly this is DC’s attempt at creating their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but they spend so much time trying to bring these superheroes together that they forgot to create a standalone movie that’s worthwhile on its own merit. It seems comic book fans will need to wait a bit longer for a film that does their legacy justice.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ***|****

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as Kim Baker, an American journalist who becomes unsatisfied with her tedious desk job and spontaneously decides to take assignment as a war correspondent in the Middle East. She begins in Kabul, where she is eagerly welcomed by fellow female reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and not-so-subtly wooed by Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). When the initial two-week time frame of her assignment passes, Baker finds that she’s actually grown accustomed to potentially perilous nature of her new job and stays in hopes of chasing down a career-defining story.

The primary aim of the screenplay, written by previous Fey collaborator Robert Carlock, is to intersperse bits of pair’s formidable brand of 30 Rock-style sitcom wit within the confines of a traditional war movie setting. There are countless ways that this strategy could have gone awry, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only has Carlock maintained a high level of humor with numerous laugh-out-loud moments in the script but he also tells Baker’s story with the kind of intelligence and humanity that it deserves. The sharp-tongued dialogue also has a streak of affable self-deprecation to it, as when Baker explains why she left the States for Afghanistan and another reporter replies, “That’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also collaborated on recent films Focus and Crazy, Stupid, Love, bite off a bit more than they can chew thematically but they do a great job of establishing a playfully irreverent tone without seeming distasteful or flippant towards the subject material. They also wisely steer away from cheap scapegoating or political posturing, instead favoring a more genuine and refined approach to their storytelling. There are also some inspired music choices that liven up some crucial scenes, the most memorable involving a covert, Marine-led hostage rescue set to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”.

It’s no secret that Tina Fey has had mixed results when trying to translate her comedic success from television to the big screen, which is why it’s so encouraging to watch her hit this role out of the park. By both dramatic and comedic standards, this is far and away her most satisfying film performance to date. She’s such a perfect fit for this character, it’s not hard to imagine that the film wouldn’t have been made without her involvement. Perhaps her work here will be enough to convince other directors to reconsider her dramatic range as an actress and lead to more challenging roles in the future.

The rest of the actors, including FX’s Fargo favorites Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, are just as well cast and lend an added layer of authenticity to the story in both large and small roles. A notable standout alongside Fey is Christopher Abbott as Baker’s Afghani handler, who gives a performance filled with quiet humility and an unstated empathy that I found to be magnetic in each scene that he appeared. So many smart choices were made for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and it’s quite rewarding to see a studio film, especially a comedy, that doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down.

10 Cloverfield Lane **|****

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane
John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane

When a teaser trailer was first released two months ago for a new JJ Abrams production, it was difficult to believe that such a promising movie could have been kept so thoroughly under the radar. Pitched as a “blood relative” and “spiritual successor” of the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, it was intentionally left unclear what this new film’s connection was to its “predecessor”. Now that 10 Cloverfield Lane has finally arrived, the relationship between the two still eludes me but what I can say with confidence is that I was ultimately let down by this entry in an apparently burgeoning franchise.

After surviving a severe car accident when driving through rural Louisiana, the newly engaged Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a pipe with a man named Howard (John Goodman) claiming to have saved her from the wreck. They, along with another man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in a doomsday bunker that Howard spent years building and his efforts seem to have paid off, as he also claims that a widespread attack has decimated the entire population of the world above. Fearing Howard’s questionable motives and deteriorating mental state, Michelle and Emmett plot to escape the bunker and discover the truth for themselves.

With any kind of mysterious setup for a psychological thriller like this, the payoff not only has to match the quality of the preceding story but it should ideally exceed it. To say that 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t stick the landing would be a vast understatement, as it veers wildly in a direction that feels incredibly tacked on and frankly betrays the mostly well-earned tension of its narrative. Rarely is a producer’s influence so obvious on a film but it’s not difficult to spot the exact moment when Abrams forcefully grabs the reins from first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and gleefully sneers “I’ll take it from here.”

Though I can’t say that I was fully on board with the film before that point anyway, at least there was reason to believe that things were headed in the right direction. The foundation of solid acting, particularly by Winstead and Goodman, and the slow-burning character moments build nicely on the initial disorientation of the situation that the main character finds herself in. The film’s most effective scene, likely to inspire bouts of nervous laughter throughout the theater, revolves around the surprising prompts in a quietly revealing game of Taboo that rides a perfect median between frightening and funny.

As a whole, though, the movie just didn’t work for me but I do sincerely hope that it finds an audience and that it’s rewarded handsomely at the box office. With a “modest” $15 million budget and a killer ad campaign behind it, this could prove to be an overwhelming surprise hit like Deadpool was last month. It’s important for Hollywood to learn that pays to invest wisely in smaller scale features rather than to throw $200 million at tent-pole movies that seem destined to under-perform. Even if the experiment of 10 Cloverfield Lane came up short in the end, I hope its production principles go on to inspire other like-minded projects in the future.

Zootopia ***|****

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in Zootopia
Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in Zootopia

Walt Disney Animation Studios builds on the overwhelming success of recent hits Frozen and Big Hero 6 with their latest effort Zootopia, which largely takes place in the titular city inhabited by anthropomorphic animals who have learned to peacefully co-exist with one another. When new rabbit resident Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the city’s police force, she crosses paths with cunning con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and the two team up on a desperate search for a missing otter. As it turns out, the initial case runs deeper than they both realize and they slowly uncover a conspiracy to divide their seemingly tranquil society.

The most immersive animated films are those that seek to create an entirely original world for their characters to inhabit and this is no exception. The implicit challenge here lies in how these mammals of varying shapes and sizes could plausibly interact with one another despite their differing circumstances. Clever solutions, from the partitioning of different living sectors based on their corresponding climates to appropriately sized pneumatic tubes designed for transportation of smaller creatures, crop up throughout the movie and remind us that the creators put loads of thought into how to make this world work logistically.

By this token, a great deal of attention is paid not only to how the varying species physically co-exist but how they view one another from a cultural perspective as well. After all, this is a world where the traditional food chain has been narrowly circumvented but that doesn’t mean they’re still free from the kinds of nuanced divisions inherent in every civilized society. The prejudices and microaggressions (Judy rebukes Nick at one point for calling her cute, as only bunnies can call other bunnies cute) that pop up between the prey and predator factions are incisive bits of humor that cut deeper than the typical slapstick fare that pervades the animated genre.

With these topics in mind along with sprinkles of overt allusions to other high-minded entertainments like The Godfather and Breaking Bad, this is a film that is clearly aiming for an adult audience but even if taken at face value, Zootopia is plenty entertaining for all ages. The action scenes have a vibrancy and brisk pace to them, while the animation is consistently breathtaking and full of rich detail. Despite having likely recorded their vocal parts completely independent of one another, Goodwin and Bateman still manage to form a palpable chemistry among their witty banter.

The film’s story, which is a great throwback to film-noir inspired mystery, is surprisingly involving for the first hour, until it gives way to predictable contrivances that split characters up just in time for the third act. For as smart as it is for most of the running time, Zootopia does dumb itself down more than it should have and more than it really needed to towards its ending. Still, this is a consistently enjoyable movie with plenty of laughs for kids and enough social commentary to keep their parents engaged too.

Gods of Egypt *|****

Gerard Butler in Gods Of Egypt
Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt

It’s hard to know where to begin with Gods of Egypt. I suppose it’s best to first ponder how a film this profoundly incompetent and mercilessly dull could ever merit a wide theatrical release in the first place. How a colossal failure like this could even get greenlit is beyond me. To watch this movie is to witness a production collapse at every conceivable level but Gods of Egypt is unique in one sense: it powers valiantly though its ridiculous story under the pretense of entertainment when most other bad movies would have the good sense to just throw in the towel early.

Set in a world that only vaguely resembles ancient Egypt, the plot begins with the coronation of the god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the new leader of the land. After the ceremony is broken up by Horus’ bitterly jealous brother Set (Gerard Butler), a fight scene ensues that makes a battle from a video game like Tekken look credible by comparison and Horus is left eyeless and forced into exile. With the help of his grandfather Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and the mortal underdog Bek (Brenton Thwaites), Horus seeks vengeance on his warmongering brother and hopes to restore peace and order to the land that he was meant to rule.

If I had to pin the movie’s problems down to one point, it would be this: not one element of it feels remotely authentic or believable. Not only do the computer generated effects consistently look stilted and out-dated but they pervade every inch of every frame and call attention to themselves in a relentlessly unpleasant fashion. Everything feels about as far divorced from the live action format as you could possible get, which leads me to wonder why the producers didn’t just commit to creating an entirely animated film at the outset instead of clumsily inserting its stars in front of endless green screens.

The actors hardly add any degree of plausibility in their performances anyway. The cacophony of irrelevant and distracting accents makes for a shaky foundation to begin with but the more troubling aspect is how little it feels like any of the performers are striving for anything resembling honest human behavior. There’s a noticeable lack of chemistry between the actors and they all seem to be embarrassingly out of sync with one another. No one is spared from a sub-par performance here but the most egregious among them is Gerard Butler, who I have all but given up on entirely at this point.

Director (“victim” may be more fitting) Alex Proyas hit creative gold in the 1990s with inventive tales like The Crow and Dark City but he’s clearly lost his way since then and maybe this will be enough to steer him away from big budget fare in the future. Perhaps another director could have brought out the campy elements of this silly premise to push it into “so bad it’s good” territory but Proyas’ leaden sense of self-seriousness weighs things down indefinitely. It’s enough to say that Gods of Egypt is epically inept and one of the most truly bewildering experiences I’ve had in a movie theater.

The Witch ***|****

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Over the past few years, there has emerged a new class of intelligent horror films that favor pacing and setting over cheap jump scares and bombastic music cues. Films like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy are able to create a kind of tense and unnerving mood by way of patient storytelling and I’m happy to say that first-time director Robert Eggers has added another memorable entry to the collection. Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, The Witch is a one-of-a-kind 17th century-set supernatural tale that uses authentically archaic dialogue and a stark color palette to create a chilly and disorienting atmosphere of slow-building dread.

We follow William (Ralph Ineson) and his deeply religious Puritan family as they are banished from a plantation and forced to relocate to a remote area seated right at the edge of a large forest. When his daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching her infant brother one morning, he is swiftly and mysteriously abducted by a figure that the family concludes to be a witch from the woods. This news devastates their mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in particular and after additional suspicious events occur, the seeds of mistrust are sown within the family and they begin to suspect one another of conspiring with the new forces of evil.

There’s a meticulous craft (dare I say witchcraft?) that went into the production of The Witch and much of that credit has to go to writer-director Robert Eggers, who allegedly committed years of research to uncovering what 17th century life was really like. The attention to detail in the costume design and the set design contributes heavily to the sense that we’re actually being transported back to this time. Even a majority of the film’s dialogue was sourced directly from period journals, diaries, and court records of the time, which almost makes it a scarier proposition than the “based on true events” claims of its genre peers.

This level of staid commitment is also carried out by the performers, who may be familiar to zealous fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones but will likely be new faces for the rest of the audience. Ineson plays the tortured patriarch William with humble conviction and Dickie is fearlessly compelling as the grieving mother with insurmountable misfortune cast her way. But the real revelation is the haunting, star-making turn by Anya Taylor-Joy as the oldest daughter Thomasin, who showcases a maturity well beyond her years and proves in only her second film role to date that she has a promising career ahead.

The final piece to this pernicious puzzle is the eerie, skin-crawling music scored by Mark Korven that makes use of dissonant string parts and haunted choir vocals to brilliantly demonic effect. It all adds up to a singular cinematic experience that may be too dour and self-serious in patches but still casts quite the spell during its lean running time. Few horror films have the certitude to look evil so nakedly in the eye but The Witch manages to weaves its unholy elements into something unshakable and unmissable.

Deadpool ***½|****

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool

With underwhelming, status quo entries like last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, superhero movies have been in need of a shake-up and it seems that Marvel found just the man for the job. Production history for Deadpool dates back to 2004 but after VFX footage “leaked” online 10 years later, the project took off quickly and generated a healthy amount of buzz among comic book fans online. Now we have the finished film, which succeeds as both a hilariously vulgar send-up of the genre it inhabits and an engaging action movie with a deft visual style that’s all its own.

Ryan Reynolds is perfect in the title role: a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed mercenary with a pension for breaking the fourth wall and a never-ending supply of self-referential in-jokes. He begins the story as Wade Wilson, whose terminal cancer diagnosis brings a prosperous, year-long relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to a screeching halt. Desperate for answers, Wilson agrees to enlist in a shadowy genetic research program under the supervision of a mutant named Ajax (Ed Skrein) with the hope of a cure. The experiment causes Wilson to be permanently disfigured and when Ajax leaves him for dead, he takes on the alias Deadpool and vows vengeance on his malicious captor.

That may seem like a downer of a setup but make no mistake: Deadpool is hands down the most comedically successful superhero film that I’ve seen so far and it will likely go down as one of the year’s best comedies. With the exception of his ill-conceived inclusion in the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (during which his mouth was inexplicably sewn shut), Deadpool was a character of which I had little foreknowledge when going into this movie. Together, Reynolds and first-time director Tim Miller have created what feels like a zero-compromise realization of everything that makes the comic book character special.

Beyond achieving an admirable level of cheekiness throughout the film, Miller also manages to tell a compelling superhero origin story and portray a convincing romance at the same time as well. In addition to the narrative elements, he also excels at shooting breakneck paced and yet visually comprehensible action scenes that benefit greatly from his previous work as a visual effects artist. He gets off to a great start with an opening credit sequence that not only has some hilarious, self-aware bits of humor but also works as a richly detailed, labyrinth style tableau that weaves effortlessly through a convoy car mid-crash.

Still, Reynolds deserves so much credit here for his commitment to this character and to the project as a whole, for which he also served as a co-producer. So much of this film rides on the personality that he provides and his winning combination of deadpan sarcasm and razor-sharp wit prove to be a formidable foundation upon which Marvel will likely look to build a new franchise. Its success may spawn inferior sequels that quickly wear out their welcome but for the time being, I’m comfortable saying that not since The Avengers has there been a more entertaining superhero movie than Deadpool.

Hail, Caesar! **½|****

Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers have proven throughout their illustrious careers that they can make just about any kind of movie that they want and with their new effort Hail, Caesar!, they return to one of their most cherished settings: the glamorous days of 1950s Hollywood. This was a time when massive movie studios could house dozens of individual productions on their lots, each with their own set of delicate demands and hangups with which to contend. Because of this potentially volatile environment, the studio system spawned top-level positions for “fixers”, who would not only oversee film production but also keep their high-profile actors out of trouble and especially out of the tabloids.

Enter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), whose title of “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures is basically a sophisticated way of saying that he’s the guy who runs in and out of movie sets all day trying to solve each problem that arises. Throughout his strenuous day, he deals with issues ranging from the pregnancy of unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) to a Western movie star who is disastrously recast into a high-class period drama. However, his main task involves tracking down famed actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who disappeared from the studio’s biggest production Hail, Caesar! and appears to have been kidnapped by a group who call themselves The Future.

This may be the first time that I’ve felt that the Coen Brothers have potentially bitten off more than they could chew. This film is jam packed with potentially memorable characters, a number of whom only appear in one or two scenes, and promising setpieces that ultimately lack any greater meaning or relevancy to the story at hand. The marketing for Hail, Caesar! promises the same kind of manic zaniness of their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading but it’s not nearly as well paced or structured as that film, which has only gotten better with repeated viewings.

Even though the day-in-the-life framework might suggest a tighter focus on Brolin’s character, the story instead seems to keep expanding further as it goes along. New characters continue to be introduced well past the one hour mark and sub-plots crop up like tangents in a conversation that was never terribly interesting to begin with. The political and religious allusions add a bemusing layer of subtext that may well reveal itself further upon deeper analysis but doesn’t add much to the story from a humor perspective.

Despite the aimless direction, there is no denying that there are specific sequences that work tremendously. A scene between characters played by Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, the latter of whom is struggling with a particularly boorish line reading, is one of the funniest dialogue exchanges in the Coen catalog. The large-scale production numbers involving synchronized swimming and sailor-costumed tap dancing are first-rate throwbacks to the genre films of the era. This love letter to old Hollywood could have benefited from a re-write (or two) and a great deal of more concentration from these masterful directors.