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Mune, le gardien de la lune (2014)
Mune makes up for its by-the-numbers characters and story with some great visuals and a fantastically imaginative world.
There's something nice about being able to pull up Netflix and stumble upon little films that I would have otherwise never heard of. This one in particular had caught my eye a while back, so I finally got around to watching it, and for the most part, I enjoyed what I saw. From the thumbnail and synopsis, I expected that the movie would have some nice visuals and a bland story; to my pleasant surprise, it did have both of those but also had a heaping ton of imagination and creativity.
Mune's strongest point has got to be the world it takes place in: this place is completely alien to our own and yet is entirely believable. The film features such a thorough world and mythology that I assumed it was based on an existing TV or book series, but it is in fact a completely original story. I won't go into detail on what all it is about, as discovering each little feature along the way is a wonderful experience.
The movie is originally in French, but Netflix's English dub is seamless, and this in no way feels like a foreign film. I'd also like to point out that the score was written by Bruno Coulais, who also scored Coraline and Song of the Sea.
Aside from the strengths I pointed out, though, Mune is fairly generic. The story beats and characters are what you'd expect for this sort of movie. Although I did enjoy Nicole Provost's spirited performance as Glim, the voice cast is for the most part nothing special. There's a mischievous guy who's unsure of himself, an arrogant dude who learns to help people, etc., and each character sounds the part without adding anything special.
With that said, I would like more movies in a future franchise to see how they expand on and dive into all that they've set up. If there aren't any sequels, though, I'll still be able to remember Mune as a happy little accident I had while browsing Netflix.
The Last Unicorn (1982)
While there is potential for a quality animation, The Last Unicorn is a victim of the time in which it was made.
The Last Unicorn is an oddity. It's certainly a darker movie than others aimed at kids, though it is hardly dark enough to affect adults. It doesn't look bad but has hardly aged well, all things considered. It tells its story pretty effectively but is slow and frankly pretty boring.
In my opinion, the biggest flaws with the movie are results of the time in which it was made. The '60s, '70s, and early '80s are widely acknowledged as a lousy period for animation, and The Last Unicorn suffers from just about every cliche we've come to know from that time: flat visuals, jerky character movement, limited facial animations, awkward voice acting, bad music, and more.
The film's animation is pretty good for its time, but I can only say that in reference to the period in which it was made, rather than strictly its age; for example, 1959's Sleeping Beauty used a similar animation style to much better effect. I also do not feel that the soundtrack, performed by the rock band America, has aged well at all. The film grinds to a halt each time a new song starts, and none of them help move the story along. This film has no reason to be a musical, but it is one, despite the fact that the leads aren't very good singers when they join in.
Of course, it isn't all bad. While I do have issues with the animation overall, there are glimpses of something really interesting. The story book style of the visuals is distinctive, and the simple, single-minded drive of the lead is strangely engaging. I believe that The Last Unicorn would benefit from a remake. There is interesting material here; it just isn't being used to its full potential. Instead, the film stands as an example of a pretty good movie from a poor environment.
The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
A run-of-the-mill horror film, The Cloverfield Paradox isn't particularly scary or interesting and is hardly worth watching.
Viewers must have been shocked when Netflix made their Super Bowl announcement that the newest Cloverfield film was immediately available for streaming. This sort of flash marketing has had some great success in the past, and as audiences scrambled to their computers, well, I hope they enjoyed what they saw more than I did.
Somewhere in the future, the earth is on the brink of losing all major power sources. Humanity's only hope is the Shepard, a particle accelerator launched into space that can theoretically produce infinite energy. When a test run goes horribly wrong, the crew of the ship find themselves in a terrifying place between dimensions.
Perhaps the single biggest missed opportunity of The Cloverfield Paradox is the fact that it doesn't maintain tension throughout its run. When horrifying things happen, characters react in the moment and are then okay afterward, only talking a little bit louder and frowning more than before. The score is that of a generic action movie with disparate noises and Inception-style "BWOM"s thrown in for effect. The film cuts seemingly at random between the events on the space station and Earth, ruining any chance of maintaining a consistent atmosphere in either story. The film doesn't have much to work with, though, as it hardly has scary scenes at all; what it does have, though, is a wacky, dancing eyeball and wild, spinning foosball spooks!
This feels like a movie that doesn't want to be too much of one thing, so it refuses to be anything. Much of the film's look and feel are a bit too nice, with the perfectly groomed characters in their spotless uniforms running through shiny, well-lit sets. The few interesting moments that this film has are quickly lost as it has no identity of its own. David Oyelowo is markedly out of place in the film, with his realistic actions contrasting his boring cast members. I feel sorry him and am honestly impressed that he could deliver lines such as, "This dimension is eating us alive!" with a straight face.
This review isn't as long as most because I don't have much to say.
The Cloverfield Paradox is simply every horror movie in space done worse. It takes the trans-dimensional horror of Event Horizon, sprinkles in some Alien and Sunshine for good measure, and glosses over it all with some low-budget flair. This isn't a horror film; this is a line of bland scenes occasionally interrupted by gross things and loud noises. It isn't as spectacularly bad as many horror movies can be - it's just boring. I'd recommend not watching it, but if you do, know that you likely won't remember what you saw a week afterward.
The Post (2017)
While it is a bit slow, The Post is a well-made and timely film.
I walked into The Post not knowing anything about it except that Meryl Streep and some other stars are in it and that a Facebook friend had complained earlier that day about how bad it was. Had I known that it was a film about a newspaper, I probably would have skipped on it, but in my ignorance I sat down and came away thoroughly impressed.
The film follows the true story of Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), publisher of The Washington Post in the lead up to and publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. When an unknown source delivers the leaked documents to their office, executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) springs at the opportunity to make a name for the Post.
In a film filled with good acting, our two leads stand out with engrossing performances: Streep's tentative conviction offsets Hanks's frenetic passion to wonderful effect. Their "unromantic love story," as writer Liz Hannah described it in an interview with IndieWire, forms much of the heart of the story, and I expect the upcoming award season to treat them well. I will note, though, that many of the other characters in this story are fairly uninteresting, as aside from the two leads, the cast is primarily men in suits sounding yeas and nays to this and that. While the story often does not need them, I would have preferred a bit more from them.
I must commend the consistently inconsistent Spielberg for his work on the film. This man moves between masterpieces and schlock with disturbing frequency, and The Post is likely one of his better accomplishments. Shot on film, The Post has a firm sense of time and place: from the opening shots of a stormy Vietnamese jungle through scenes of board meetings and newsrooms, I was thoroughly convinced that the events were taking place right in front of me. On a more technical level, The Post makes good use of colors, blocking, and of light and shadows to help tell its narrative, and it accomplishes quite a bit through its visuals.
The real-life Kay Graham was the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, and The Post takes full advantage of that fact to address workplace sexism. Throughout the film, men offer Kay condescending smiles and agree with her as if speaking to a child; other women are often talked over and disregarded. Beyond this, much of the film's tension arises from the New York Times Co. v. United States court case which threatened the freedom of the press in 1971. Given today's political climate, I don't know that this film could have been at a better time.
The Post is not a movie for everyone. There are no fight scenes or tearjerking deaths and barely any music to rouse the audience. Much of the film consists of beautifully shot scenes of characters talking, and viewers are likely to sour from its ambitious-yet-lethargic setup. Regardless, I recommend it for people who can enjoy slow movies, as it has plenty to offer - perhaps more than we can even know right now.
Saving Christmas (2014)
Saving Christmas is inept, imbecilic, and an absolute waste of anyone's time.
When I reviewed The Last Airbender last year, I figured it would be the worst movie I would bother writing about on here. This one is something special. I have given very few films a 1/10 rating, as in order to do so, I must feel that it's devoid of all artistic and entertainment value. Because Saving Christmas fits the bill, I've given it that rarest of honors.
When Kirk (Kirk Cameron) sees that his friend Christian (Darren Doane) isn't enjoying Christmas, he sits down with him to explain away his concerns about the holiday.
I once saw a movie called Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny that was worse than Saving Christmas. I guess that's about the best I can say about it.
The movie feels like a short film drawn out to an hour and twenty minutes. The main "narrative" involves 38 minutes of two men sitting in a car interrupted by slow motion flashbacks and fifteen minutes afterward dedicated to a dance sequence and credits/bloopers. That leaves the remaining half hour or so for slow motion footage, plodding narrations, and an obsession with hot chocolate. This is a movie that is terribly difficult to sit through.
While it's clear that the film's technical integrity was at best a quickly abandoned afterthought in favor of its thematic material, the fact that it fails there as well is damning evidence of how poor this movie is. Saving Christmas isn't even about putting Christ back in Christmas, as the poster claims, but is instead about Cameron making up some spots to stick Him in. Much of the movie consists of Cameron explaining to his friend how different traditions had Christian meanings all along, such as Christmas trees representing Christ's cross, presents representing city skylines, and snow globes representing nativity scenes. The cast is likely a group of people that Cameron knows, and let's just say the few non-white people present really stand out. The only black character with a speaking role, Diondre (played by a man named David), is a jive-talkin', hip-hop-lovin' DJ who fits just about every stereotype you would expect of a man in this kind of movie.
The worst part of this film, both onscreen and off, is Kirk Cameron himself. From this movie and the events surrounding its release, he strikes me as arrogant and self-aggrandizing. Every smug, nonsensical explanation that he offers to his friend is met with immediate awe and reverence. In reality, what he says throughout the film is at best naive and at worst falsehoods, distortions, and misrepresentations of both Christian and pagan histories. The fact that Cameron wrote these interactions framing himself as flawlessly as he did says something about the man's character.
He goes as far as to praise Christmas-season materialism by declaring it to be a way to thank God for taking on a material body. That comparison is inherently trivial, as beyond the equivocation of the word "material", Cameron is describing every holiday and how it is celebrated. That is, of course, unless there is some ethereal holiday that cannot be celebrated by any physical means. What am I even talking about at this point?
Saving Christmas is among the worst movies I've ever seen. It is an abject failure in all matters spiritual, historical, visual, audible, and ethical. At the core of this travesty is a pretentious, one-man charge toward desperate re-appropriation of Christmas traditions by a man who sees himself as our cultural savior. The acting is bad, the writing is bad, the message is bad, the music is bad, the dancing is bad, the jokes is bad, and the hot chocolate is probably bad. Do not watch this movie.
While the Star Wars saga has certainly seen worse films, The Last Jedi is not one to be proud of.
As someone who grew up on Star Wars movies, it hurts to watch one that I think is truly bad. These new movies were supposed to bring balance to a damaged franchise but have so far done a shaky job of that.
The Resistance is in a particularly poor state. Led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), the small fleet of Resistance fighters must come up with a plan to escape the First Order's fighters. Meanwhile, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to train with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she finds herself strangely connected to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and possibly to the dark side of the Force.
This is a sloppy movie, and to its detriment, it has populated its messy plot with mostly uninteresting or unimportant people. It is not, however, without its strengths. As with The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is the most interesting character in this film and the only one that I have thought much about since seeing it. I find his inner conflict genuinely compelling, and given his personality and past and what he does in this movie, I honestly have no idea where his arc as a character will go. He even has a uniquely brutish and aggressive fighting style that makes his lightsaber work genuinely intimidating. The movie has me engaged just about any time he is on screen, and as he interacts with Rey, it becomes apparent that the two of them are just about the only emotionally engaging parts of the movie. I have remained interested in Rey's journey since The Force Awakens, and while I am confident she will find her place on the right side of history, just how she gets there is likely to be interesting to watch.
I honestly cannot say much about the rest of the cast, as neither the returning characters nor the new ones are particularly interesting. I would like to speak highly of Mark Hamill's return to the role of Luke Skywalker, but to my disappointment, the script hands him some interesting dialogue and ideas, juggles them a bit, and then walks off in boredom. He is an important part of Rey's personal journey but does not in my opinion present much compelling material to the audience aside from his vague distaste toward the Jedi. Otherwise, the cast is almost completely forgettable: Poe Dameron is unlikably rash, Leia is just sort of there, Finn is the same as before, and Vice Admiral Holdo would be more at home in a PTA meeting than in a respected military position.
These characters spend most of the film standing and talking - sometimes walking and talking - about hope and about how poorly The Resistance is doing. A convoluted mashup of subplots arises and ultimately leads nowhere, and, well, the bad guys are bad. The Last Jedi's primary flaw is in just how pointless most of the film is, and after I finished watching it, I had a tough time remembering the majority of it aside from the finale. In that way, this movie reminds me of Rogue One with its structural issues and epic finale. Despite its many flaws, that film was at least fairly straightforward in delivering its simple plot.
I have other, smaller nitpicks with the film. For example, I think that the humor is often arbitrary, unfunny, and out of place. There are several clumsy comic relief moments and important scenes interrupted by these jokes. This is a trend that I have noticed in several Disney-owned films recently, particularly Spider-Man Homecoming from earlier this year, and as I commented in that review, it comes across as the filmmakers being afraid to look genuine and make the audience feel too much emotionally. Also, Daisy Ridley is a poor fighter, and her couple of fight scenes look more like dress rehearsal footage than the epic Star Wars fights of other films. I hope she trains a bit more for Episode IX. Finally, there are multiple points in the film where the script seems to subvert audience expectations entirely for the sake of subversion. There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking material in unexpected directions, but in this case it harms the overall experience of this film and feels like the movie wants to be recognized for innovation over its ability to tell a story.
Overall, The Last Jedi feels like a rough draft. With its cobbled-together opening, stumbled-through middle act, and effective finale, there is a good movie in here somewhere. That is not what I saw in the theater, though. The Last Jedi has me concerned with the trajectory of these new Star Wars films, as I enjoyed The Force Awakens, thought Rogue One was mediocre, and now find this one to be simply bad. I am still going to watch the next release given my hopeless love for the series, but it will need to deliver in ways that this one did not in order to keep me interested down the road.
The Witch, director Robert Eggers' debut film, is an atmospherically terrifying tale of manipulation and paranoia.
2016 was a pretty solid year for horror films, with major releases like Don't Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lane faring well with audiences and critics. While many releases were sequels, prequels, or lazy reboots, there were several that ended up as genuinely scary films. The Witch, an indie gem distributed by A24 (Ex Machina, Swiss Army Man), is one of these, and many people simply haven't heard of it. I'm not going to hide how much I like this movie. It fascinates me. I'm generally not much of a horror fan, but at the end of the day, a good movie is just a good movie.
The story takes place in 16th-century New England and follows a Puritan family of seven who have recently been banished from a plantation settlement. Distressed, they set out blindly into the wild, in hopes of building a new home for themselves. When a witch from the nearby forest abducts their youngest, the mother of the family completely snaps, and the rest must try to survive in the untamed wilderness as their relationships and minds deteriorate further. As they grow more paranoid and even accuse the oldest daughter of witchcraft, they threaten to destroy themselves.
The pacing of this film has remained its most contentious quality among audiences since its release. The slow and deliberate pacing starkly contrasts the exciting scare-fests that more casual horror fans expect today. Instead, this movie is oppressively tense, refusing to break the mood that it builds at almost any point. What the pacing and atmosphere of this film are able to create is utterly horrifying. The witch herself is introduced to us in just about the most repulsive way possible, and from that point onward, the film essentially builds as an hour-and-a-half nightmare. Without the relief provided by unearned jump scares, the tension from these scenes builds mercilessly and doesn't let up.
I also have to be sure to mention the acting in this film. Each member of the family, which serves as most of the cast of the movie, is thoroughly believable, from the parents to the young twins. While children in movies are with rare exceptions painfully hard to watch, both the child and adult actors in The Witch give convincing performances. This is a film featuring many relative unknowns who can remind us that a film doesn't have to be helmed by A-list stars to be effective. In particular, lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy delivered a well-rounded and convincingly emotional performance; I'm excited to see where her career takes her over the next several years.
The characters' mutual descent into madness is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece The Shining. Visually, they are both exquisitely constructed, though instead of the bright symmetry of the older film, The Witch presents itself visually in a sharp grayness of frank poverty, uncomfortable character closeups, and shrieking nature shots. Honestly, you'll end up afraid of just about everyone and everything in the movie from the paranoia that the visuals help produce and the chilling score of period instruments and melismatic chanting help to fully bring out.
There's a terribly vulnerable nakedness to the characters' condition in their small homestead. Protected from the wilderness by a shabby split rail fence, the members of this family appear so cold and fragile. While the titular witch is the villain behind what happens to and between this family, the land around them is so oppressively ambivalent that it become a villain all its own.
The film is a surprisingly spiritual film. Christian iconography is common in western horror films, but The Witch is able to meaningfully incorporate otherwise cliché themes and imagery into its narrative. The characters are deeply religious, often praying and quoting scripture, though a good deal of drama and tension derives from how horribly they treat each other in the worst times. By rejecting the joy and forgiveness that is central to the Christian faith, this devout family allows for a very real and present evil to tear them apart. Each of these characters is fast to instruct the others to pray for forgiveness because they refuse to offer it to each other, and in the end, they all suffer horribly.
Beyond its strengths as a horror film, The Witch is an undeniable accomplishment of period filmmaking. From the characters' way of life and view of the world to their immediately apparent costumes and speech, most elements of this film are placed and held believably within seventeenth century America. The dialog could have sounded contrived and artificial, and given the inexperience of many of the actors involved, I am impressed by how well it turned out.
Director Robert Eggers heavily researched speech, farming, religious attitudes, and more from the time period portrayed in order to authentically transport us there; his efforts paid off. I particularly appreciate his transformation of dialog produced by twentieth century actors into everyday speech of seventeenth century English expats. To my knowledge, the accent that the characters use in the film is accurate to what the English language sounded like at that time. The words used are also largely accurate; Eggers went as far as to incorporate records of actual alleged possessions and bewitchings from around that period in time into scenes in the film. The ease with which these lines fit the rest of the film is a testament to his efforts.
It's a shame that because of this movie's pacing and relatively understated scares I can't recommend it to many horror enthusiasts, but that hardly takes away from its artistic quality. The Witch is a testament to what can be accomplished in a film conceived and driven by a passionate and skilled mind. It is proof that there is more to the horror genre today whatever Blumhouse Productions is pumping out this month. Like the best horror films, it exists where fear and helplessness meet and holds you there with it until the screen has gone black.
The Dark Tower (2017)
Loud, dumb, and disorganized, The Dark Tower is yet another failed Stephen King project.
I haven't covered a single original film this summer, but that's hardly surprising at this point. Heck, every new release that I've covered has been a comic book adaptation. This week, though, I get to shake things up a bit – I'm covering a cinematic sequel to a Stephen King series. Going into the movie, I had in mind that it would be an adaptation of the Dark Tower books; I haven't read them myself and so do not know if there is material for fans to recognize or if everything is fresh. I've since read online that it's supposed to take place after the events of the books, or maybe it's a sort of half-sequel/half-adaptation. Regardless, it's another big box office bomb to add to an already-explosive summer.
The movie follows Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a boy who suffers from nightmares of a giant tower, a dangerous Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and a mysterious Gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba). We learn that the tower, which is located at the center of the universe and is the source of all things, is under attack from the Man in Black. This villain attacks it with the minds of psychically gifted children and personally sets out to bring in Jake for the great power the boy never knew he possessed.
The movie isn't without merit. While some special effects were iffy, shots of the tower itself are impressive; one toward the end of the film that simply showed the structure peaking thousands of feet above the clouds made me want to pause the screening and just look at it. I also feel that the film is paced well enough, and even though it isn't particularly long, I was surprised when the screen faded to black at the end. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are pretty interesting to watch. I enjoyed Elba as Jake's reluctant father figure, and McConaughey's character was fairly intimidating in a couple scenes. He obviously hammed up the performance a bit, but sometimes a smiling man in a black trench coat is just what your overstuffed, stupid movie needs.
Beyond this, the movie is a failure. The main character is a boy, and that is his entire personality; the movie doesn't give him a single identifiable trait. He has dreams, draws compulsively, stumbles through a portal, and then follows Roland around. Is he smart? Funny? Angry? Does anyone like or dislike him aside from that one bully in that one scene? What does he want? What does he like? He is passively drawn along the film's plot points, and in the end, the story concludes without his input. Spoiler.
The side characters are just as bad but are at least forgettable, and this ends up being the sort of movie where you shouldn't expect to care about anything. Whether it's a random 19th-century-style village or bland CGI monsters that we are told are a threat, people, places, and ideas are picked up and dropped in service of the journey to save the tower. There's a prescient homeless guy, there are rat people wearing fake human faces . I could list elements of the story that come right out of nowhere and contribute nothing to the overall experience, and I would have a perfectly long review.
I can't help but think of a bonding scene where Roland teaches Jake to shoot his pistol, only to suddenly stop and say that the boy's mind is his weapon. Jake doesn't hold a gun for the rest of the movie, and the scene only serves to teach him an oath from the Gunslingers' past. The boy goes back to following Roland around and occasionally fall into another disorganized, poorly lit action scene.
Much like Valerian from a few weeks ago, this movie is a bloated mess. Unlike that sci-fi blunder and its nice visuals, though, this one doesn't have much of anything going for it to make it worth seeing. The material that The Dark Tower produces simply gets lost within itself. Let Jake and the Gunslinger save the universe; you just save your money.
Majo no takkyûbin (1989)
Kiki's Delivery Service is charming, imaginative, and brimming with personality.
Over the past few months, I've been catching up on Studio Ghibli's legendary catalog of anime films. For almost 30 years, they released some of the most highly acclaimed animation and with incredible consistency. They co-produced last year's The Red Turtle, and I've heard rumors that they will be coming back from their hiatus in the near future. Until then, though, I have plenty more to catch up on; my most recent experience has been with one that I have heard a whole lot about – 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service.
In this film, a young witch named Kiki (Takayama/Dunst) has just turned 13, the traditional age for her to leave her family and train her magic on her own. With her black cat Jiji (Sakuma/Hartman) at her side, she sets off and ends up in a large coastal city. There, she finds work at a local baker, befriends a lively artist, and catches the attention of an energetic boy named Tombo (Yamaguchi/Lawrence). As she struggles to find her purpose, she has to learn to make something of herself in a place that doesn't seem to have much use for witches.
This has got to be one of the most charming movies that I've seen in a while. Through the combination of story, music, and Kiki herself, director Hayao Miyazaki creates a tone similar to that of his childlike masterpiece My Neighbor Totoro. We see Kiki's enthusiastic personality take her from place to place, and through the score and some good visuals, we feel every bit of this with her. Kiki proves once again that Miyazaki is an absolute master of character.
One aspect that I respect about this movie is that to show us Kiki's life and personal growth, it doesn't follow a standard plot structure and instead tells its story emotionally. We follow Kiki in her everyday life as she responds to different situations and learns more about herself and the world around her. I described the plot of the film in just a few sentences above; I honestly wouldn't have much more to say in terms of particular moments, but that is part of the magic of this movie. Kiki's Delivery Service is a story about Kiki herself, and the fact that the film doesn't send her along common plot points keeps the focus entirely on her.
The movie is also grounded, given its mystical elements. It takes place in essentially our world, only people are used to the existence of witches – some are fascinated, and some don't care at all. In one scene, Kiki lands on a street corner and enthusiastically shares her goals to the few people standing there, who then continue with their day as usual. You are given a real sense of the size of the city and how little Kiki seems capable of at her age, despite her high ambitions.
At its core, this is a very down-to-earth movie about a teenage girl figuring out her place in the world and struggling with her conflicting desires of comfort and independence. At 13 years old, she wants to do so much, but she often finds herself inhibited by other kids, by her emotions, and by the environment surrounding her.
Long-time Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi wrote the score for Kiki, and this is in my opinion one of his best. Each piece uniquely contributes to the character of the film and provides an emotional backbone without smothering or controlling the viewer's experience. His scores are often . I recommend listening to "A Town With An Ocean View" online to get a sense of not only the score but for the tone of the film as a whole.
Overall, Kiki's Delivery Service is a wonderful coming-of-age story about a girl finding herself in a strange place. This movie probably won't work for someone who watches anime for amazement, but it is just about perfect for lovers of people and their stories. I really wish that I had discovered Studio Ghibli's movies before they went on hiatus. In my experience so far, the quality of their films ranges from good to some of the all-time best, and this one in every way deserves its status as a classic.
The Mirror is a haunting and deeply personal look at the life and memories of a dying man.
Film is a unique medium in that it communicates to us through our two most important senses, sight and sound. By these mechanisms, we experience much of the world around us, and by their reflections, we hold our memories of those experiences. Film is then in a special position to present the thoughts, beliefs, and actions of a character or characters by a creator talented enough to convey them. This can, of course, come in the form of a thrilling action movie with scenes and dialog that stick with us long after we see them, and in its purest form, it can come as an expression of the inner workings of someone's mind.
The Mirror, the fourth feature film of the Russian master auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, is a semi-autobiographical film presented as the memories and dreams of Aleksei, a dying poet. In no particular order, we see scenes from his early and late childhood, as well as more recent events in his adulthood. The unconventional, stream-of- consciousness structure of the film presents these scenes as one might recall them in real life, connected by moods and moments that prompt recollection of others.
Many of his earliest memories have little bits of dialog, giving a general sense of what is happening since the specifics have been long forgotten; memories of his adult life with his son and ex-wife contain more complete conversations.
At several parts in the film, Aleksei's memories are also paralleled by reflections on Russian history and society, as we are shown footage of soldiers in World War II and hear an excerpt from a letter written by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, among other moments. Audio is also played over some scenes of Tarkovsky's own father, Arseny Tarkovsky, reading his poems. The camera moves deliberately through all these scenes as an observer; the long takes, as well as the movie's manipulation of time and sound, are key to accomplishing the intended effect.
Tarkovsky himself maintained that he structured The Mirror as one would a piece of music, focusing on the material's form rather than on its logic. More Ligeti than Mozart, though, this film is challenging and eschews anything resembling a standard structure or plot.
I often comment on the score of a film – especially a great one – and how it contributes to the overall viewing experience. The problem with The Mirror in this regard is that the formal score is so sparse that it hardly stands out as a strong or weak aspect of the film. Passages from J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion play through a few key scenes, and electronic ambient music plays over others. Instead, the deliberate soundscape of the film itself becomes a sort of score in its own right, such as a strong wind blowing over a field or the oppressive noise of a printing press.
Visually, the film is rife with haunting, surreal imagery. In a black-and-white dream, Aleksei's mother stands in a large, empty room, shaking water off of her arms and the hair covering her face, before the room dissolves around her in a dampened cascade of rain and wet plaster. In another, the same woman levitates several feet above a bed until a white bird flies over her. In one of the film's more well- known scenes, the family's barn burns as Aleksei's family and neighbors watch, their small figures helplessly standing at a distance as the structure simply burns.
Watching The Mirror is artistic bliss. The depth of many of Tarkovsky's shots is enrapturing; the texture of the world around the characters is palpable. You feel the cold, hard wood of the floors and walls of Aleksei's childhood home and the cold of a Russian winter. The film reaches a certain part of your mind and supplants a man's consciousness into your own, leaving you in something of a trance.
I can never fully explain this movie, and in that knowledge comes some of my enjoyment and appreciation of it. Each idea and realization I make about particular aspects of the film is nothing compared to the work as a whole. The Mirror is ultimately a film that is meant to be experienced rather than to be fully understood or explained. The human mind is itself nebulous, and how appropriate it is that a film meant to visually portray one should be as such.
Valerian is very pretty and very boring
This weekend saw the release of two big-budget blockbusters, and while I will be sure to watch Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk in the near future, I decided to check out Luc Besson's most recent feature instead. His best-known science fiction movie, The Fifth Element, is remembered fondly for its imaginative world and characters, and I came into this one hoping for something similarly new. I'm afraid that isn't what I got, though, and the exciting visuals promised in the previews ended up being just about all that Valerian delivered.
The film, based on the long-running French sci-fi comic Valérian et Laureline, takes place several decades into the future when thousands of sentient species from different galaxies come to live together at space station Alpha. Human police agents Laureline (Cara Delevingne) and Valerian (SKU #283826) are sent to interrupt a black market transaction on a desert planet, but when a particularly vivid dream takes hold of Valerian, a few routine missions give way to reveal an intergalactic scheme of cover-ups and corruption.
The universe of this movie is truly impressive. We spend some time on the beach paradise of planet Mül, whose inhabitants are something like a cross between Avatar's Na'vi and the Zora from The Legend of Zelda series, and the film contrasts this effectively with the techno- urban climate dominating much of the rest of the film. Valerian draws visually and thematically from The Fifth Element, presenting a vast, multi-cultural city with flying cars and exotic aliens and works with themes of the human condition and the power of love. This environmental work and the film's visuals are, however, the film's only real strengths.
Valerian feels like the movie from a thousand minds, and none of them communicated well with each other. The story jumps around wildly, action scenes come out of nowhere, and some really interesting ideas are introduced and immediately forgotten. As an example, the mission I mentioned at the start has our protagonists using special equipment to interact with a marketplace in another dimension. Valerian is able to send only his hand and gun over and then pop back into our reality, but the technology is never seen again. This is all treated as a run-of-the-mill tourist trap and could have been expanded on dramatically, but the plot moves on, and future conflict is handled through standard running, flying, and shooting.
Instead of feeling like a cohesive movie, Valerian comes across as an effort to put as many ideas and elements from the comic series as possible on screen at once; the best word to describe it is "bloated". I feel that there is material here for an incredible movie trilogy or TV series if handled properly, but if the box office return is as disappointing as many have projected, we likely won't see that anytime soon. As it stands, this is all too big and boring to bring in new audience members.
Probably the strangest decision on the part of the director was casting a 2×4 in a lead role of a major motion picture. It is certainly a historic moment in cinematic diversity, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for Cara Delevingne being asked to play off of a piece of propped-up hardware. Despite Ms. Delevingne's okay performance, the movie comes to a complete stop at each scene meant to develop their romantic bond, and any strengths of Valerian's character or abilities must be told to us rather than actually shown. The characters have absolutely no chemistry together; splinters received from kissing unfinished yellow pine in fact result from a physical reaction and not a chemical one.
Coming back around to the film's big strength, though, I hold the highest respect for the dozens of visual artists behind Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. This is a very good-looking movie, and I can only imagine how much time and effort went into its design. Ultimately, though, while I can often recommend movies for a wide variety of reasons, this one is long enough that unless you are a devoted Luc Besson fan, your time is likely better spent elsewhere.
Hotaru no haka (1988)
Grave of the Fireflies offers a heartbreaking look at life and death that few films can rival.
I first saw Grave of the Fireflies in the fall of 2013 in my dark upstairs apartment in college; after finishing the film, I went straight to bed. Despite it being one of the most beautiful movies I had ever seen, it was about two years before I could bring myself to watch it again.
The film follows fourteen-year-old Seita and four-year-old Setsuko in Japan in World War II. After their home is destroyed and their mother killed in a firebombing raid, they are forced to find somewhere new to live. A distant aunt takes them in, but as she grows more resentful of their unwillingness to contribute to meals and housework, Seita decides to move out for good. Now completely on their own, the siblings move into an unused bomb shelter and wait for the fighting to end.
This is a complex story. On the surface, it is easy to view Fireflies as an anti-war film, given its brutally honest portrayal of victims of war. Director Isao Takahata, though, has denied this many times, and has said that it is instead a message to contemporary, young audiences to be thankful for the environment they live in. As a survivor of the Okayama air raids, Takahata saw attitudes around him shifting and felt that the younger generation was taking for granted the luxuries that they had.
In the film, the United States is never referred to outright and instead provides the backdrop for the story. This is a story about people, not nations.
Instead, I see this as primarily a movie about self-destructive pride, which is especially pertinent to a nation that often viewed suicide more highly than surrender, refusing to give up on a war that they had been losing for years. Beyond the attack at the beginning of the film, what the characters experience is a result of personal decisions and of the actions of those around them. There are multiple points at which our main characters' lives would have been changed for the better had Seita sucked up his pride and made the more responsible decisions.
Beyond this, Grave of the Fireflies is a heartbreaking look at children as the silent victims of tragedy, war or otherwise; this story could have taken place in the wake a natural disaster and had the same power.
Through its story, music and animation, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made. This is an experience that you will never forget and is one of the best movies that you may never want to watch again.
Kaguyahime no monogatari (2013)
Lovingly crafted over the course of eight years, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an animated masterpiece unlike any other.
I can look back to a few experiences that completely changed the way that I watch movies; one of these is the first time that I saw Stanley Kubrick's 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Oddysey, which showed me the purest example of film as an art form that I had ever seen. I saw it not too long after I graduated high school and had never experienced a movie that expressed complex and confusing thoughts in the way that it did nor in such a visually stunning way. The film went beyond conventional narrative and filmmaking to deliver something entirely new to me.
In a similar manner, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya represents a level of artistry that I had never before seen in an animated feature. From the brilliant mind of Studio Ghibli's lesser-known co- founder Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday), the film is an adaptation of Japan's oldest folk tale, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. It tells the story of a strange girl (Asakura/Moretz) who is discovered inside a bamboo stalk and who shoots through her childhood at a rapid pace. Her adoptive parents (Chii/Caan, Miyamoto/Steenburgen) bring her into the city, where she is groomed as a noblewoman and comes to be widely sought after for her beauty.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is simply gorgeous; its visual style combines watercolor painting and charcoal sketching to create something that is entirely its own. Personal and often unnecessary care is given to the smallest details, such as a toddler crawling after a frog or the princess casually putting her hair up. The character and quality of the animation even change with the tone of the story, most noticeably in one instance in which the princess' despair completely overwhelms her. As the world is stripped away and sound is simplified to almost nothing, the scene so perfectly expresses the character's personality and mood and presents such a perfect image of her story that to me, it fully represents the reasons that animation exists as a medium. Because there are no live actors or sets and no real world in which the filmmakers must do their work, the artists are free to fully express themselves as artists, without the constraints of the real world. Rather than use animation to simply bring color to a bland story as many animators are wont to do, the creators here use the deep story and visuals to produce situations and imagery that would otherwise be impossible to create. The movie spends much of its run time grounded firmly in reality – sometimes uncomfortably so – but at its most powerful, it extends far beyond what live action can achieve.
The film is also thematically rich, particularly exploring the societal roles of Japanese women at the time depicted. When she is no longer allowed to live her simple life around her childhood friends, her life becomes dedicated to presenting herself as beautiful and submissive to the world. She is instructed to sit still and to look pretty, never mind the fact that she is often hidden from view. She is whisked away to be married as soon as she reaches puberty and is told by both the men and women around that a rich husband will be the source of her greatest happiness.
Kaguya herself is a wonderful character to watch. She is at times one of the happiest people you could imagine but at others one of the saddest. After all, she started walking over the course of a day and grew into the body of a teenager in less than a year's time. Her innocence is shown as a blessing and a curse, and seeing her interact with the variety of people she encounters provides the film plenty of joy and drama.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya uses the language of cinema in a way that, in my experience watching animation, has been truly special; through blocking of scenes, visual symbolism, color, and much more, the film is able to speak to us beyond its surface narrative and to tell a more robust story. It makes full use of the opportunities unique to animation and combines them with tools of the great live- action masterpieces of the past.
The film, for example, often separates the princess from the rest of the world, particularly in scenes in which she is hidden from sight. She is often placed behind a screen or behind bamboo blinds for narrative purposes, but even when these are not present, there is often an element visually keeping her from other characters, such as a bamboo stalk or a tall blade of grass placed between them. While not forming a true wall between the characters, the viewer can see them separated and feel their distance.
This film also offers a wonderful experience of sound and silence through the use of its score, which consists of tracks mostly under two minutes long. This allows each moment of music to have its power and meaning, while not overwhelming the viewing experience or directing the viewer along every step of the film's vast emotional landscape. Through contrapuntal folk sounds or delicate solo piano, the film is able to sing its story to us as it shows it and tells it. The musical pieces and the silence between them are given the full attention that they deserve and in turn give us exactly what we need.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. While critical response at its release was overwhelmingly positive, far too few people have heard of it, and even fewer have seen it. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a movie that you will never forget and offers an experience not quite like anything else you will ever see.
Wonder Woman (2017)
This movie is okay; this woman is amazing.
Wonder Woman is the fourth movie in the DC Extended Universe and its second film following a single hero. Given the quality of the movies that preceded it and Wonder Woman's anemic presence in last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I really didn't have high hopes for this one. I figured I'd give it a shot, though, and to my surprise, it wasn't awful; in fact, I mostly enjoyed it.
Diana (Gal Gadot) is an Amazon from the island of Themyscira, a land occupied and governed entirely by women. When American fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands off their coast, Diana rescues him and leaves her home to try to put an end to the First World War, which she believes to be the work of Ares, the god of war. Matters aren't as simple as she planned, though, and she ends up learning uncomfortable truths about humanity, as well as secrets of her own identity.
For the most part, Wonder Woman is a relief from the dour, clunky DC films that have preceded it. First off – this one is in color! Gone are the days of gray-and-orange sludge; this movie has green grass and a blue sky. More importantly, Wonder Woman's costume has taken on some classic red and blue. The requisite sexist and fish-out-of- water scenes are mostly given their appropriate time on screen without becoming tedious, and a good deal of the intended humor actually lands. There's an improvised scene early on featuring the two leads on a boat at sea, and they play off of each other wonderfully.
Unfortunately, the film still suffers from a lot of the issues that the previous DC films have: awkward pacing, on-the-nose dialog, weak villains, and an overwhelming score that beats you over the head with what you're supposed to feel at every step of the way. The movie is also incredibly cheesy, and while there is an appropriate, or even desired amount of cheese in a comic book movie, I found myself groaning a bit too much from it all. The battle scenes also manage to out- Snyder Zack Snyder in terms of their overuse of slow motion and "awesome", impractical fighting. When Wonder Woman herself isn't involved in scenes, I tend to lose interest, and the reveal toward the end of the film hit me like a handful of Triscuits.
Far and away the best aspect of the movie is Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot's performance as a naive hero with an overpowering sense of duty is impeccable, and I loved watching her work. This character saves people because she wants to save them, and it is truly compelling to watch such a pure expression of a superhero. We have seen enough movies about heroes begrudgingly doing their work; in BvS, Superman looks pained to help, and Batman doesn't even try to save anyone.
Wonder Woman in this film just might be my favorite superhero in the current cinematic universes, across both Marvel's and DC's movies. We see a hero who fights for those who can't fight for themselves. Marvel has produced quippy dialog and some fun fight scenes, but its heroism has faltered lately. For their deity superhero, they gave us a pile of cardboard with a hammer and a sexy accent. I haven't been this excited for comic book movies since the first Avengers film, and I really wasn't expecting that from DC at this point.
I recommend this movie, not for its intrinsic qualities as a film but for the direction it is potentially taking the DCEU and for its main character. I still don't have high hopes for Justice League, but if they keep this hero doing what she does best, I'll probably be just fine with it.
Fateful Findings (2013)
It's a magical day!
A lot of movies are bad, some movies are good, and a handful of movies are so bad that they are great. Then, there are those movies – those very, very few – that transcend any established ideas of "good" or "bad" and find themselves a special place in the world of cinema. For years, movies like The Room and Rocky Horror Picture Show have been loved by thousands around the world, not for their merits as works of art but for something different from and far better than what could have been intended by their creators. New cult hits come about once or twice a decade, and while it is still relatively new, Fateful Findings has quickly proved itself among the greats.
The movie follows Dylan (Neil Breen), a man gifted with magical powers by a magical rock he found as a child. He works as an author but is secretly hacking into government and corporate computer networks in order to expose their corruption to the world. As he dives further into his work and his life becomes stranger and more dangerous, he must find the strength to finish his work.
I love this movie so much.
Like many other cult hits, Fateful Findings is a film that is uniquely its own. It is ostensibly a psychological thriller, with clear inspiration from David Lynch and others, but it fails to deliver a genuine thrill. Instead, it delivers comedy, a little bit of boredom, and a whole lot of weirdness. Characters in Fateful Findings tend to repeat their lines and to repeat them, and everything is a bit too stilted for us to treat them as real people. Breen himself works at a desk with no fewer than three powered-off laptops that he abuses regularly by throwing books at them or swiping them onto the floor.
This film is all over the place in terms of its plot, characters, and themes. For example, I never knew that I could laugh so much at a scene of murder, but Breen's deadpan delivery of "I can't believe you committed suicide. I cannot believe you committed suicide. How could you have done this? How could you have committed suicide?" is absolutely hilarious. The film's finale, which features a self- proclaimed human insurance company and the President of The Bank, is one of my absolute favorites of any movie and for all the wrong reasons.
Much of what makes this film such a pleasure to watch is the earnestness with which it was made. Neil Breen works professionally as an architect but makes movies in his spare time and does so simply because he wants to. I personally can't find much enjoyment in intentionally bad movies, as there's a certain cynicism behind movies like Sharknado or Samurai Cop II that I can't get behind. "So bad it's good" is a profitable section of the industry, and any schmuck can spend a few thousand dollars and very little effort on a film that ends up potentially making them millions.
With Fateful Findings, we instead have a man with a vision. Neil Breen hates corrupt governments and corporations, and by gum he's gonna make movies about them. This one acts as a sort of wish- fulfillment for Breen in that he stops these powerful entities by exposing their wrong-doings to the world. Publicly sharing his evidence – or in his words, "the files and supporting documents and supporting truths: the factual documents" – allows him to bring them down and save us all.
I can't recommend this movie to everyone, as plenty of people will understandably see it as simply a bad movie. For those of you who enjoy cult films, though, I can't recommend it highly enough. You will laugh, you might cry, and you will never forget Fateful Findings.
Trolls is a pretty adorable movie, but it has little else going for it.
There's been a weird trend recently of companies making uninspired movies about nostalgic toys: we had Battleship a few years back, and the Transformers series has been a huge hit, so now we've got Trolls. Why is there a movie about brightly colored toys from the '60s? Sure this isn't as bad as The Smurfs, but it's nothing special.
Trolls is a simple adventure movie starring the cheery Princess Peppy (Anna Kendrick) and downer Branch (Justin Timberlake). When a group of trolls is captured to be eaten by the evil Bergens, our leads set out to rescue them, and you can guess the rest of the story.
Just about everything is bright and adorable, and the plot is punctuated with pop songs that range from Justin Timberlake to Earth, Wind & Fire. There are a couple original songs as well – my favorite is written by the duo behind last year's La La Land and Broadway's Dear Evan Hansen – and the big show-stopper is without a doubt the ubiquitous "Can't Stop The Feeling!".
Despite featuring a whole lot of songs, though, Trolls is hardly a good musical. Very little of the music contributes to the story itself, and your enjoyment of the songs will come more from recognizing them than from their quality or what they accomplish for the story and characters. While this can work in another film, Trolls simply isn't strong enough to support itself under threat of its viewers thinking of something else. If you're not pulled in by the bright colors and flashy musical numbers, you'll sit there bored until you notice that you're only about 20 minutes in.
It may appear unreasonable for me to care much about the quality of a kids' movie like this, but I want to hold DreamWorks Animation to a higher standard. They have put out some great work; their second film ever, The Prince of Egypt, features some of the best animation that I've seen in a movie, and the How To Train Your Dragon series has provided some of the best reasons for us to continue paying for 3D theater tickets. DreamWorks has been very hit-and-miss lately with their releases, though, and I would call this one a miss. Movies like Trolls, as well as Home from the year before it, just look lazy in comparison to what the studio can make.
Overall, Trolls is innocent enough and is a fine movie to put on in front of kids; they'll be entertained by the colorful visuals, and it has a fine enough moral. You won't find much in terms of quality, though, and the movie ends up feeling about as plastic as the toys it is based on.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Fun and full of laughs, Spider-Man: Homecoming fits right in with Marvel's ever-expanding Cinematic Universe.
It's been about a month since a major superhero film release, so here we are again!
Marvel is at bat now, and they've brought out their most iconic superhero, Spider-Man. We got a peek at him in last year's Captain America: Civil War, so now that he has his own film, let's see what it has to offer.
Spider-Man: Homecoming follows a teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland) shortly after his discovery by the Avengers. He can't seem to keep their attention, though, as he dreams of saving people on a larger scale. Meanwhile, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a local construction worker, has been hoarding leftover alien technology from the attack on New York in The Avengers and is selling hi-tech weaponry around New York City. Parker must learn to balance his high school life with his desire to impress the Avengers to hopefully stop this homegrown menace.
Without a doubt, the best part of the movie is our main character. His two most recent representations on film have been strong in their own ways, but were fairly weak in their portrayal of high school. In Homecoming, Parker's life and struggles as a smart kid with a huge crush on a classmate are now shown with refreshing sincerity; one particularly heartfelt and awkward scene hit me in such a genuine way that I immediately felt a dozen high school memories of my own come rushing back. Holland is infectiously enthusiastic throughout in his portrayal of the young hero and might be my favorite take on the character to date.
With great heroes must come great villains, and Michael Keaton absolutely knocks it out of the park with his performance as Vulture. In the tradition of other Spider-Man villains, Homecoming presents an ordinary, down-on-his-luck man who goes in over his head and is corrupted by power. The suit that he wears is genuinely intimidating, and Keaton portrays his character with a mix of the charismatic persona we're familiar with from the '80s and '90s and the unhinged performance he gave in 2014's Birdman. I hope we see more of him in the future.
While the film succeeds with several of its characters, though, it is very shallow and ultimately lacks heart. Homecoming is a fun movie, but it is little more than that and fails to offer real emotional depth. The movie actually seems afraid to let the viewer really feel something; dramatic moments are consistently broken with jokes, and we learn only in passing dialog that Peter and Aunt May have recently lost Uncle Ben. This tragedy was traditionally the kicking-off point for Parker's heroic journey, but we don't meet him at any time, and neither of the "mourning" characters so much as frowns over the event.
Maybe Wonder Woman has me spoiled, but Spider-Man also doesn't feel like much of a hero in this one. Homecoming nailed the character of a high school Peter Parker but left Spider-Man awkwardly stumbling through people's back yards with almost no character growth throughout the film. This is a sort of origin story, but I had hoped he would feel more amazing by the end credits. My concern is that he is left to develop in the time before the next film or carry his clumsiness into it.
Despite its flaws, though, Spider-Man: Homecoming is absolutely worth a watch. It offers a fun, colorful experience that corrects some of the shortcomings of our hero's recent outings while standing alone as both a Spider-Man film and a worthwhile entry to the ever- expanding MCU.
Coraline is an imaginative, creepy, and wholly unique animated experience.
Animation is a contentious medium. Some consider it to be exclusively for children, while others insist that it can appeal just as much to adults, if not more so. Personally, I agree with the latter, and I can offer films like Waltz with Bashir and Grave of the Fireflies as examples. Coraline, from the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a film that I feel bridges the gap between children's entertainment and adults' art especially well. On the one hand, it is a stop motion feature about a young girl who discovers a fantasy world from inside her home, but on the other, it has garnered huge critical praise, and almost anyone who sees the film as a child is completely terrified by it. Who is it made for, then? I'd say that it's for exactly the person who wants to watch it.
Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved with her family to Oregon from her home in Michigan. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) ignore her and spend their time writing for a gardening catalog, and the neighbors – an elderly pair of former actresses, a crazy man who claims to train mice for a circus, and a boy named Wyborne (he goes by "Wybie") who follows her around – are all a bit strange for her liking. In her new home, though, she finds a small door that leads to a world almost the same as her own, only better.
Here, her parents pay loads of attention to her, the actresses are beautiful acrobats, her crazy neighbor actually has a circus of kangaroo mice, and Wybie can't talk! After a few trips to this world, she is just about ready to stay, until she hears the catch: she must gouge out her eyes and replace them with buttons. Her parents have also been captured, and so she must defeat the monstrous Beldam who controls the fantasy and set things back to the way they were.
It isn't often that a movie captures me as fully as Coraline does. The characters, story, animation, music, overall design, and little details in the world and between characters all come together to create one of the most unique movies that I have ever seen. Coraline herself is a wonderful character, and we get to watch a bored girl with a poor attitude develop the strength to accept that while her world is not perfect, it is what she has, and she can love it for that.
This film sets up its macabre and charming tone from the opening shots – under fairly creepy music a hand of needles empties a doll and builds a new one, before sending it floating out of a nearby window. For lovers of stop motion, Selick's past works, or creepy movies in general, this is one that simply can't be missed.
The Last Airbender (2010)
The worst part is that they've threatened us with a sequel for years now.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated series that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. Widely acclaimed for its animation, story, characters, humor, fight choreography, philosophical/religious/sociopolitical themes, and more, it received a Primetime Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, multiple Annie Awards, etc., over its three-season run.
Its 2010 live-action film adaptation currently holds a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and swept the Razzies.
I was an enormous fan of the series during its original run but had moved on by the time the adaptation hit theaters. News of its release was exciting, but I had moved on at that point and didn't pay it any attention. It wasn't until Avatar came to Netflix a few years later that I revisited it all; it quickly became my favorite TV series and remains one of the best that I have seen. Around that time, though, I also heard the film's reputation: people were calling it one of the all-time worst film adaptations of a TV series. I'm thankful that I was warned, as the tens of thousands of fans who initially saw it in theaters were left horribly, horribly disappointed.
In the world of Avatar, some members of the Four Nations are able to control one of the four respective elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Known as benders, these people can use their skills for travel, construction, and of course fighting. At any point in time, there is one person, known as the avatar, who is capable of bending all four elements. Tasked with keeping the Four Nations in balance with each other, the avatar is reborn into a different nation with each incarnation. The film begins at a time in which the current avatar has disappeared, and the Fire Nation has nearly conquered the world.
Two siblings from the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) and Katara (Nicola Peltz), discover the avatar Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen in a shell of ice underwater. Aang has only learned his native airbending, so they travel to the North Pole in search of a waterbending master. Hot on their trail is Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation, and his Uncle Iroh. Can the kids make it in one piece? Is The Last Airbender less critically acclaimed than Catwoman?
Where to even begin with this film? The idea behind it is a mess. Shyamalan wrote and directed a live-action adaptation of an animated series, attempting to condense a season's worth of information into a single, 100-minute movie. Beyond this fundamental flaw, almost everything is wrong. The acting, writing, pacing, and characters are all so bafflingly and aggressively bad that I have to remind myself that there were human minds behind the whole project.
Watching this movie is an exercise in tedium. Almost everything on the screen is brown or a dark, washed-out blueish color, and each character's line delivery is dull and slow. Scenes jump around and then sit for too long. Characters mispronounce each others' names, and key characters are left out entirely.
There are probably dozens of written and filmed reviews online that offer detailed explanations of every way in which The Last Airbender failed, and trust me, I have only scratched the surface. My job is to tell you that it sucks and to give a sense of why. It can be hilariously bad in the right mindset, but if you have a choice between it and anything else, don't waste your time.
Princess Mononoke is one of Studio Ghibli's best and is one of cinema's finest fantasy epics.
In a cinematic landscape inundated with sequels, reboots, and adaptations, it's refreshing to step back a decade or two and watch something wholly original and incredible. Princess Mononoke was Hayao Miyazaki's seventh feature film and remains the longest that he has directed. At 134 minutes long and with a story as grand as the world it depicts, Mononoke is far from the standard animated output of either the US or Japan. This one is violent. It is epic in the truest sense of the word. It shows us all the world in which we live, only completely different, and it does so brilliantly.
We hear two distant drum blasts, and the film opens on vast, forest- covered mountains. Trees fall and plants die as a monster passes through the them. This, we learn, is an angry demon in the form of a giant boar, and it charges to attack a nearby settlement. Prince Ashitaka (Matsuda/Crudup) meets the monster outside of his village and defends his people from it, but not without sustaining a cursed injury. He must leave his village and head west to search for a cure.
As he travels, he comes to Iron Town, which is under constant attack from the forest that it has been destroying. Leading this attack is San (Ishida/Danes), a human girl who was raised by a wolf deity and has vowed to kill the town's matriarch, Lady Eboshi (Tanaka/Driver). As the conflict escalates far beyond the town's mountain, Ashitaka must choose where his allegiances lies and how he can end the war.
I consider this to be one of the few truly great, mainstream environmental films. Its treatment of the nuanced issues at hand is equally nuanced, and unlike the easy "nature good/people bad" moral of so many others, Mononoke is able to leave us with the message that there is a balance that must be maintained. Humanity will always develop and progress, but it must do so with the knowledge that our lives and our resources all depend on the world that we inhabit.
This film pulls no punches. Limbs and heads are shot clean off, and hard questions don't get easy answers. Perhaps most challenging, though, is the character of Eboshi. She acts as the antagonist of the film but is benevolent toward those in her town, buying prostitutes out of nearby brothels and offering lepers employment and respect. She is destroying the environment surrounding her land but all for the sake of her people. The cultures and relationships depicted in Princess Mononoke are uncharacteristically real for a blockbuster release.
Mononoke's animation is top-notch, even compared to Miyazaki's other works, as the landscapes, characters, and monsters are given incredible life and depth throughout. Joe Hisaishi's score is epic and has got to be among the greatest scores in an animated feature. The sound design as a whole is incredible; through it you can feel every arrow landing around you and smell the dust as it flies up from the feet of Ashitaka's elk. Princess Mononoke was supposed to be its director's last film, and while I am glad that he changed his mind, this would have made for a fine final work.
Balancing intellect and emotion, Arrival is a truly remarkable sci-fi experience.
What would happen if an alien race visited Earth? Artists and authors have been answering this question for over a century, bringing different perspectives to the issue. While the portrayal of hostile extraterrestrials attacking the earth is certainly popular, there is a place in science fiction for stories of diplomatic visits, exploring how other civilizations may interact with ours and how humanity deals with changes on this level.
When large spacecrafts land around the world, Colonel GT Weller (Forest Whitaker) brings in linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to assist in translating the aliens' words and writing. Together with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise works to communicate with the "heptapod" aliens, while at the same time, she is haunted by flashes of her daughter's life and early death. As tensions build and the threat of global war grows, Louise must find out why the aliens have come and what their visit means for humanity.
I find that one of the film's strengths is its portrayal of how people around the globe react to the heptapods' arrival. We see people rioting, a radio personality calling for violence against the aliens, governments reacting through paranoia, and more. In its purest sense, Arrival is a movie about people that also features aliens. It uses their arrival as a backdrop for a story about people, in more ways than you could ever expect when walking into it.
Arrival is a rare film that can balance ideas and emotions in such a way that neither overpowers the other and both can be integral to the film's character. This is without a doubt one of the finest science fiction films of the last few years, if not the past decade, and I have personally recommended it to just about anyone who will listen to me.
The Relationtrip (2017)
A funny, unpretentious, and surprisingly deep indie gem
I went into this one expecting your standard, quirky indie romance: two misfits meet each other - "Why can't the world accept us?" - "I guess we'll just stay weird." - credits roll under a song by a band you've never heard of. Instead, what I got was a creative, surreal look at a relationship between two people not looking for love but finding it despite themselves.
The Relationtrip is an independent romantic comedy that covers years' worth of relationship problems over the course of four days. What makes the film special is the way that it handles its characters and their respective problems. I don't want to give anything away, but the movie is filled with symbolic and metaphorical scenes and not in a pretentious way. Rather than the "ask me what it means!" imagery of a lot of indie content, The Relationtrip portrays visually what could clearly be said verbally, and it succeeds fantastically. Our main characters' deepest issues are laid out for us and for each other to see in a wonderfully creative way.
This one really is unique. I had the opportunity to watch it at a film festival and recommend it to anyone who is able to see it.