Finding Dory **½|****

Ellen DeGeneres and Ed O'Neill in Finding Dory
Ellen DeGeneres and Ed O’Neill in Finding Dory

Pixar hops onto the often lucrative sequel train once again for Finding Dory, a long delayed follow-up to their hugely successful 2003 film Finding Nemo. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton is back with a story that closely follows the narrative beats that worked for its predecessor but also touches on some darker and more mature themes that are a welcome departure from the frivolous tone of most animated adventures. It’s disappointing, then, that the movie jettisons most of these concepts in the final act for a more juvenile and inconsequential approach that comes off as goofy rather than grounded.

It’s one year after the events of Nemo and we are re-introduced to amnesiac blue fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as she begins to have foggy flashbacks of her childhood and her long lost parents. She becomes determined to find them and her quest leads her to a coastal California aquarium, where she befriends the lovably gruff seven-legged octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) and re-unites with her whale shark childhood friend Destiny (Kaitlin Olson). With the help of many other supporting characters, Dory traverses the obstacles of the frequently perilous Marine Life Institute in hopes of reuniting with her family.

One of the noticeable improvements on the original is the impeccable visual design that serves as a reminder for how quickly technology is advancing in the realm of animated filmmaking. If you had asked me 5 years ago what the best looking Pixar movie was, I probably would have said Finding Nemo but the level of photorealism that the studio has reached in their most recent efforts is nothing short of remarkable. Beyond just being aesthetically pleasing, the definition and the vibrancy behind these characters and settings also allows for some fun visual gags too, as when Hank uses his camouflage capabilities to seamlessly blend into his surroundings.

For all of the intelligence that went behind the look of this movie, it seems that there were other elements that were dumbed down in order to compensate. The premise essentially boils down to one primary motivation and while the contrivances that arise are sometimes clever and inventive, they eventually undermine basic principles of logic and physics that seem far-fetched for any animated film, much less one from Pixar. The overblown climax, which involves a car chase in which an octopus successfully drives a car on a highway, may be silly enough to work for smaller children but left cynical little adult me straining not to roll his eyes.

There are smaller scale setpieces that tend to fare much better, like Dory and Hank’s terrifying trip to a touch pool where children’s hands dart in from the water’s surface like jagged bolts of lightning. Even the quieter moments in Dory’s flashbacks, in which she struggles to recapture memories from her fragmented childhood, build to something even more poignant than the emotional center of Nemo. If Finding Dory had stuck to more sophisticated storytelling instead of panders to its younger audience, there’s no doubt that it would have been a more worthy and likely superior successor.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½|****

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

It seems New Zealand director Taika Waititi is on a roll after following up the funniest movie of last year, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, with this utterly charming and heart-warming adventure comedy. Unlike most animated movies released these days, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rare family entertainment that actually feels like it was made to work for every person in the family, regardless of how young or old they may be. It has the kind of intelligent storytelling and emotional framework that will earn the respect of the parents but also has plenty of sight gags and silliness to keep kids engaged too.

The story follows a rabble-rousing orphan boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison) as he is assigned by child welfare services to live with his foster Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) out in the New Zealand countryside. After an unexpected tragedy, Ricky learns that he will soon be taken back into government custody and in an act of defiance, he chooses to run away into the dense forest. Uncle Hec eventually finds Ricky in the woods but with both missing for a substantial amount of time, the public soon begins to fear that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a national manhunt is undergone to retrieve the two.

Hec and Ricky are a classic pair of comedic opposites: the former is a quiet and reserved countryman focused solely on survival instincts while the latter is a troubled hooligan who compensates for his insecurities with a boisterous swagger and “gangster” affectations. As the straight man, Sam Neill has the perfect level of incredulity in each of his deadpan reactions and Julian Dennison’s antics are outrageous without veering into full-on obnoxious territory. The way that these two play off one another and eventually grow to understand each other resembled a more extreme version of the kind of relationship Carl and Russell had during the middle section of Pixar’s sublime Up.

This movie has a similar level of pathos and tender moments but it also packs in plenty of laughs along the way. There’s a certain strange, off-kilter quality to Waititi’s sense of humor that I personally find to be infectious and oddly inviting. Characters often use silence and “dead space” for longer than it seems like they should and those breaks give an unexpected timing to the punchlines when they do hit. When Bella sings an ebullient impromptu birthday song for Ricky, it’s Hec’s visible signs of discomfort and Ricky’s admirable show of support that keeps the ridiculous song from seeming tedious and needlessly drawn out.

With its playful tone and its rustic nature setting, I also found parallels to Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age movie Moonrise Kingdom, in which Tilda Swinton played an antagonist literally named “Social Services” who mirrors the hilariously unrelenting social worker played by Rachel House in this film. Flight of the Conchords favorite Rhys Darby even turns up briefly in the third act as a zany survivalist who isn’t quite as well prepared for sudden contingencies as he thinks he is. No matter what age you are, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is delightful entertainment through and through.

Love & Friendship ***½|****

Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship
Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship

Jane Austen’s work has been brought to the screen countless times before but this adaptation of her posthumously released novel Lady Susan brings a new level of comedic prowess that may surprise those going in expecting another period costume drama. Love & Friendship does maintain Austen’s most prevalent themes of propriety and prosperity in 18th century England but does so with a savage wit and a cheeky playfulness to match. What’s more, this story also centers around a character who seems diametrically opposed to the morally virtuous heroines that have long been a trademark of Austen’s most iconic novels.

Kate Beckinsale gives what may be her best performance ever as the newly widowed Lady Susan Vernon, who wastes no time trying to find a new suitor and wishes to accomplish the same goal for her modest daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in the process. While visiting the estate of her in-laws, she is pursued by the young and naive Reginald (Xavier Samuel) while Frederica is ineffectually paired with the hilarious dimwitted yet inexplicably wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). During her pursuit, Lady Susan has intermittent conversations with her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), who offers her own perspective on Susan’s affairs.

This is admittedly the first film that I’ve seen from director Whit Stillman, who previously directed both Beckinsale and Sevigny in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, but I’m eager to discover some of his previous work. Beyond his expert handling of the characters and a consistent mood of whimsy, he also has stylistic touches that add just the right amount of personality without drawing too much attention to themselves. I was particularly fond of the unconventional way that characters were introduced towards the beginning, with a sequence of shots that feature each main player posing above captions that reveal their name and most notable characteristic.

Some of these more theatrical touches are accompanied by a looser and more modern feeling screenplay that’s both whip-smart and filled with plenty of dryly humorous moments.  There are a host of clever one-liners and pointed bits of wordplay, primarily spoken by Lady Susan, that are capable of cutting characters to their core before they even realize what’s really being said to them. Beckinsale delivers these lines with a sort of polite viciousness that not only feels appropriate for the milieu but also underlines the manipulative and casually cruel nature of her character in a way that still makes her oddly likeable.

While Stillman’s script doesn’t touch on much in the way of character development and complex storytelling, it more than makes up for it with a crackling sense of verbosity. In a just world, we’ll be talking about this movie again next February for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. If anything, the dialogue is so packed and often spoken so deftly that I don’t doubt a re-watch or two (preferably with subtitles) would help me enjoy the film’s brilliant brand of banter even more. There’s something wickedly satisfying and utterly delightful about Love & Friendship that should allow both avid Austen fans and casual movie goers to effuse its accomplishments.

The Lobster ****|****

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster
Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz in The Lobster

Provocative Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos makes his English language feature debut with The Lobster, a profoundly bizarre and strikingly original satire that’s equal parts pitch-black dark comedy and touching romantic drama. It’s a work steeped firmly in the absurdist and surrealist traditions that grows into something more gentle and empathetic (even whimsical at times) as the story progresses. If Luis Buñuel and Wes Anderson had the chance to collaborate with one another on a film, I’d like to think there’s a good chance it would have turned out something like this.

In a dystopian future where singledom is effectively outlawed, individuals who have not found a lifelong partner are required to stay at a “hotel” where they have 45 days to find a match or else they are transformed into an animal of their choosing. After his wife of 12 years leaves him, David (Colin Farrell, at his schlubbiest) reluctantly checks in with his brother, who unsuccessfully navigated the constraints of the system and was subsequently turned into a dog. During their stay, David meets two other guests (John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw) who seem just as hopelessly outmatched in their conquest for partnership.

When a trial romantic relationship takes an unexpected turn for the worst, David flees to a wooded area where a group of “loners” reside and meets a woman (Rachel Weisz) who seems to be the perfect fit for him. Despite the rebellious nature of these outcasts, it turns out that their code of anti-romanticism is strictly enforced by the group’s leader (Léa Seydoux) and any public signs of affections are expressly forbidden and ruthlessly punished. Thrust in between two systems of conflicting ideologies, David must reconcile his burgeoning new romance among an increasingly hostile environment.

The film’s brilliant premise, a devilishly clever take-down of western culture’s idolization of monogamy, is beautifully rendered throughout but has the most impact in the often hilarious first half of the story. It takes the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) societal pressures of getting married and takes them to comically outlandish measures, creating an oppressive system where single people are ostracized and literally hunted for sport just because they haven’t settled down yet. The indoctrination scenes in the hotel, where the staff puts on skits that further solidify the notion that being alone presents a danger to society and to one’s health, have a rich deadpan humor to them that most comedies are too lazy to even attempt.

These satirical elements have just the right amount of bite and fearless energy but the tender romance that blooms between Farrell and Weisz’s characters in the film’s second half has just as much power to it. While they can’t express themselves openly among the “loners” for fear of persecution, they have brief moments of respite when they travel into the city and are allowed to explore the longing that they have for one another, even if that just means holding hands while walking down the street. It’s these times that The Lobster finds just the right amount of heart to balance the cynical nature of its conceit and proves itself to be one of the most weirdly inspiring love stories since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

X-Men: Apocalypse **|****

Jennifer Lawrence and Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse
Jennifer Lawrence and Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse

Just when 20th Century Fox seemed to be back on track with the humongous hit that was Deadpool, they take a sizable step back to mediocrity with the staggeringly paint-by-numbers affair that is X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s unthinkable that such an outstanding ensemble cast, including some of the most talented young actors around, should be pinned down with such clunky dialogue and middling special effects work. Throw in some scatterbrained storytelling with a world-class bore of a supervillain and you have a recipe for one of the more forgettable entries in the X-Men franchise (and yes, I include the Wolverine movies in that list).

In a Gods Of Egypt-esque opening, we are introduced to the all-powerful mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) as he is buried under an Egyptian pyramid thousands of years ago. After magical sunlight awakens him in 1983, he finds himself distraught with the current world order and seeks four mutants, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to help him regain the proper balance for a mutant hierarchy. It’s up to the X-Men team, led by Professor X (James McAvoy) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), to save humanity as we know it and stop Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen from global decimation.

With a plot this rote, a compelling antagonist could have potentially salvaged things but even a great actor like Isaac just can’t bring any personality or liveliness to his monotonous character. Buried under modulated vocals and layers of makeup, he doesn’t get much of a fair shot to weave any kind of nuances into his performance and instead draws from the same bank of indignation and sullenness with each line reading. His character’s plan and overall motivation is murky throughout and despite his ability to do just about anything, he is oddly much less threatening than other villains that are comparatively more limited.

Elsewhere, it seems another paradox has developed wherein the more characters are introduced in the X-Men series, the more they all tend to become indistinguishable from one another. Outside of their varied superpowers, each mutant seems to be trending toward one unified emotional state of angst and brooding, even though there isn’t an especially good reason for that to be the case. It’s plausible that it’s the effect of similarly glum YA adaptions like the Hunger Games series, which wouldn’t be a stretch since Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is basically Katniss Everdeen in a different outfit when she gives a would-be empowering speech at this film’s conclusion.

It’s disappointing that director Bryan Singer, who led up three previous X-Men successes, just can’t seem to find the flavor and uniqueness to each of these characters beyond their main superpowers this time around. Some characters like Nightcrawler and Quicksilver (who has another humorous slow-motion scene that recalls the Days of Future Past sequence) break the mold sporadically but don’t get enough room to breathe with all of the existing clutter. X-Men: Apocalypse just has too many objects up in the air and unlike one of its hypothetical mutants, not enough arms to juggle them all successfully.