ISLE OF DOGS (2018)

March 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s referred to (sometimes affectionately, sometimes not) as Wes World. Many directors have their own style, though few are as immediately recognizable as a film by Wes Anderson. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, MOONRISE KINGDOM, FANTASTIC MR FOX, THE ROYAL TENNEBAUMS, and RUSHMORE all share a tone and style … a cinematic personality, if you will, that places them squarely in Wes World. Beyond the similarities, there is also a level of innovation and creativity in each of his projects. He consistently delivers a “Wow” factor, or in the case of his latest, a “bow-wow” factor (my one and only pun, I promise).

Expanding on the stop-action animation he used in FANTASTIC MR. FOX, director Anderson also plays homage to Japanese filmmaking – especially the animation of Hayao Miyazaki and the cinematic legend Akira Kurosawa. The film’s prologue, “The Boy Samurai” is a Japanese fable and sets the stage for a futuristic Japan where the Mayor of Megasaki, Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), has decreed that all dogs should be banned from society due to dog flu, snout fever and canine saturation. Kobayashi (an embittered politician who looks eerily similar to Japanese acting legend Toshiro Mifune) even ships off his nephew’s beloved Spots (Liev Schreiber) to Trash Island. In Part 1 “The Little Pilot”, that nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin) crash lands his plane on Trash Island while attempting to rescue Spots.

Part 2 (“The Search for Spots”), Part 3 (“The Rendez-Vous”), and Part 4 (“Atari’s Lantern”) break the story into segments, but the real fun here is in the visual effects and the banter amongst the dogs. The five main dogs we follow are Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). Chief is a stray dog who is the group skeptic and doesn’t hesitate in greeting most anyone with “I bite”. We know this because director Anderson explains “Barks are rendered in English”.

While assisting Atari with his search, the five dogs alternate between gossiping and decision-making by committee … spouting one-liners that are consistently funny and incisive. Anderson co-wrote the script with Roman Coppola and his frequent collaborator Jason Schwartzman. Kunichi Nomura provided expertise to ensure the Japanese segments were accurately portrayed. The usual Wes-style droll humor is evident throughout, though viewers must make sure their hearing is fined tuned to catch some of the wise-cracks that almost seem like background noise at times.

In addition to the humor, political corruption and conspiracies are at the core of what could be described as an animated rescue adventure comedy. Narrator Courtney B Vance ensures we are following along with the story, although the artistic beauty of Trash Island – a garbage strewn wasteland – is enough to hold our interest. Keeping track of the homages is challenging enough, but we also get Haikus, Puppy Snaps, and Yoko Ono as a scientist. Greta Gerwig voices Tracy, an idealistic Foreign Exchange student who recognizes a corrupt politician when she sees one, and there are a couple of brilliant noirish scenes between Chief and Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson). A recurring visual of dogfights in a cloud of dust harken back to the days of classic cartoons and the unbridled violence that we’ve always found so comical in animation.

It’s a dystopian tale … well it is if you happen to be a dog. Cat lovers probably view this as paradise. An all-star cast of voice actors keeps us interested even when the story bogs down at times, although the look of the film always seems to be priority one. It’s such an easy movie to respect, however, one that’s a bit more difficult to speak passionately about. This review doesn’t address the ever-present complaints from those looking to create a race or nationality based scandal. To me, the film is creative and appears to be against unkindness and discrimination and corruption. Perhaps that message overrides some easily ruffled feathers.

watch the trailer:


THE OVERNIGHT (2015)

June 27, 2015

overnight Greetings again from the darkness. For kindergartners, making friends is as easy as a bag of gummy worms on the playground. For adults, it’s a bit more complicated.  According to writer/director Patrick Brice (Creep, 2015) making adult friends can involve rectum paintings and penis prosthetics … at least after a lot of wine and too many bong hits.  While this is not my wheelhouse for humor, it’s clearly a bold cinematic step and pushes the boundaries even further than other recent Duplass Brothers projects (they are Producers here).

Emily (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Adam Scott) have recently moved to L.A. from Seattle with their young son. Emily and Alex are good parents, good people, and a solid couple – except for some sexual incompatibility. While at the park, their son (and his gummy worms) befriends the son of Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), one of the endless oddballs that populate L.A. Kurt charms Emily and Alex into visiting his home for an adult dinner party/kid playdate.

Greeted at the door of the mansion by Kurt’s French wife Charlotte (Judith Godreche), Emily and Alex are clearly wooed by the worldliness and sophistication of their new friends. Kurt is a bit of a renaissance man and he and Charlotte also appear to be a solid couple … though as the evening unfolds, we soon enough discover their own sexual incompatibility. And therein lies the core and conflict of the film – relationship dynamics impacted by sexual tension explored through raunchy humor.

It’s interesting to compare Brice’s film with Paul Mazursky’s 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and analyze the cultural and cinematic differences brought on by the 46 year difference. What was shocking then, is nothing compared to what this film has us believe that most young adult couples are struggling with now. Emily and Alex spend the evening exploring their boundaries as individuals and as a couple, while being softly pushed by the more adventurous Kurt and Charlotte. Were it not so raunchy, the theme would be more interesting … though significantly less appealing at the box office.

All four lead actors are strong, but Schwartzman and Scott handle the more challenging roles with aplomb. Given my preferences, I could have used a safe word on a couple of occasions, but the real test will be whether audiences find the film a bold step forward, or whether it is judged to be shock for shock’s sake.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

March 16, 2014

grand budapest Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the finer things in life are an acquired taste. The exception to that is the film canon of writer/director Wes Anderson. You either “get” it or you don’t. Which side of the line you fall is much more a matter of style and taste than intellect.

This latest from Anderson may be his most visually distinct and stylistic presentation yet. He even tosses in a bit of a plot so that we have more reason to follow the outlandish antics of master concierge (and murder suspect) M Gustave – played with comic verve by Ralph Fiennes. Yes, the Ralph Fiennes known for such comedy classics as Schindler’s List, The English Patient and The Hurt Locker. Admit it, when you need a laugh, you fire up the Ralph Fiennes stand-up routine. OK, so he did have a role in the terrific dark comedy In Bruges, but nothing has prepared us for seeing him in this witty, fast-talking role at the center of Anderson’s wildest ride yet.

As any follower of Anderson films will tell you, there is always fun to be had in picking out the members of his supporting cast. Assisting Mr. Fiennes with this one are Edward Norton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton (oddly cast after Angela Lansbury dropped out), Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson. Of course, there is also Bill Murray, in his seventh collaboration with Anderson. The most impressive new face is that of Tony Revolori, who plays the teenage Lobby Boy in-training … a role that turns vital when he is befriended by Gustave, and is invaluable in the telling of the story.

None of that really matters though, as the best description I give this is “spectacle”. It’s a whimsical romp with nostalgic tributes throughout. It’s a movie for movie lovers from a true movie lover. You will notice the three distinct aspect ratios used to depict the different time periods, and the music is perfect … from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Lute and Plucked Strings to Alexandre Desplat’s fantastic composition over the closing credits. If you are up for some hyper-stylistic eye candy, this one is tough to beat (especially this time of year).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: colorful costumes and wild set design combined with oddly humorous deadpan dialogue delivery from the mind of Wes Anderson is something you “get” OR you never miss a Ralph Fiennes comedy!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: traditional story telling is your preference for movies

Below you will find two links … one for the trailer and one for the Desplat’s closing credit song.

the closing credit song:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skpyDiCrMZs

the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Fg5iWmQjwk

 

 

 


SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

December 22, 2013

banks1 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely it’s a coincidence that Disney Studios has released this movie just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the classic Mary Poppins film. Regardless of the promotional angle, the story of Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) going all out to woo stuffy Brit writer PL Travers (Emma Thompson)actually turns out to be a well made and pretty interesting story of two stubborn people butting creative heads. Even better is a behind the scenes glimpse of the creative and collaborative process of bringing the Travers book(s) to the big screen.

Director John Lee Hancock is the perfect fit with his track record of glossy, feel-good, inspired by true life stories with The Blind Side and The Rookie. We never lose sight that this is a Disney production of a Disney story. The only Disney blemish shown is a quick shot of him stubbing a cigarette in an ashtray. Mr. Disney was an expert at hiding his smoking habit from the public … well at least until he died from lung cancer in 1966, a mere two years after the premiere of Mary Poppins. Mostly Walt is depicted as working diligently to provide the trust and security that Travers sought in protecting her most precious flying nanny.

banks2 The real star here is Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers. Her desperate need for money is mentioned once, but the story is more concerned with her innate need to protect the legacy of her story … no animation, no mean Mr Banks, no Dick Van Dyke, and no silly songs. Watching her interact with the songwriting Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman, BJ Novak) and the Disney screenwriter played by Bradley Whitford is the most fun this movie has to offer. Her “no, no, no” mindset is quite frustrating for the quite successful Disney creative team. The armchair psychology is really where the movie falters a bit. Watching Walt struggle to mesmerize Travers with his Disney magic feels a bit forced, and when combined with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, leave the audience way ahead in figuring out the key to her heart and mind.

Once the daddy issues come to light, we get Hanks’ best scene in the film. As he finally connects with Travers by laying bare his childhood (and fatherly) challenges, he eloquently explains the importance of imagination and storytelling for both children and adults. A desire to re-write or re-imagine our childhood seems to be at the core of many adults. It seems many dwell on the negative aspects of childhood, and even here, Travers’ dad (Colin Farrell) may be the nicest alcoholic who ever inspired their kid to be a writer.

PL Travers (born Helen Lyndon Goff) wrote 8 Mary Poppins books between 1934 and 1988, but was so unhappy with the film version that she never agreed to a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1990’s when she agreed to a stage version (no Americans allowed!). She passed away in 1996 at the age of 96, and the actual recordings played over the closing credits show just how well Ms. Thompson captured the strong will of the author.

**NOTE: Tom Hanks has an impressive family tree.  He is a distant cousin of Walt Disney and Abraham Lincoln.

**NOTE: On his deathbed, the last words Walt Disney wrote were “Kurt Russell”.  The reason for this was never discovered, although Mr. Russell was under a 10 year contract with Disney at the time.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in the creative collaboration process between two very talented sides with extremely different motivations

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a kids’ or family movie about the classic Mary Poppins movie.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5kYmrjongg

 


MOONRISE KINGDOM (2012)

June 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Not many people think like Wes Anderson. That’s probably a good thing in real life. It’s definitely a good thing for movies. He is a creative and distinct filmmaker, though not one with mass appeal. My two personal favorites of his are The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore. His previous film, Fantastic Mr Fox, was a solid hit and critically lauded. Now he delivers one that will probably only click with his core fans. It’s a thing of beauty … if you keep in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Set on the fictional New Penzance Island off the coast of New England in 1965, the movie opens with terrific visuals of the Bishop family’s lighthouse/home. Our tour is conducted as if the home were a dollhouse, and our eyes struggle to keep up with the detailed decor. We are struck by the color palette of tans, greens and splashes of red. This will continue throughout the movie.

The story centers around two 12 year old misfits: Sam and Suzy. Sam is an orphan and outcast in his Khaki Scouts troop, and Suzy is misunderstood and ignored by her selfish parents, who communicate with a bullhorn and through legalese at bedtime (they are both lawyers). Sam and Suzy are attracted to each other’s misery and decide to run away together (yes, they are on an island). This ignites a flurry of activity on this quiet island and showcases two first time actors with remarkable screen presence: Jared Gilman (Sam) and Kara Hayward (Suzy).

 The “grown-ups” on the island include Suzy’s parents played by Bill Murray (a Wes Anderson regular) and Frances McDormand. The island police chief is played Bruce Willis, who we soon figure out is also a social outcast. The Scoutmaster is played by Edward Norton with a regimented weirdness that will have you laughing in confoundment. For such serious topics, Mr. Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola provide us many comedic moments – both through dialogue and site gags.

During the search, other colorful supporting characters get involved. Social Services is pursuing Sam. Tilda Swinton plays Social Services. In one of the few gags I’ll give away, Swinton’s character only introduces herself as Social Services. This is a gut punch to a system that is often under-staffed and forgetful of it’s true mission. We also get Jason Schwartzman as a very helpful, though slightly seedy, Cousin Ben. Harvey Keitel plays the senior Scoutmaster who is unhappy with Norton for losing a scout. Bob Balaban makes periodic appearances as a narrator … either for a documentary or for the movie, depending on the moment’s need.

The script does a wonderful job of capturing how the 12 year old brain works. Some of the scenes with Sam and Suzy are almost like looking a photo album … exactly the way our childhood memory works. Flashes of moments. The Alexandre Desplat score is heavy on percussion, but it works well with the minimalistic look of the film. It’s also interesting to note that this is one of the few movies where it makes sense to have a soundtrack with Benjamin Britten, Hank Williams and Mozart! If you go to this one, keep your eyes open and moving, and your ears receptive. The payoff is worth it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a devoted fan of Wes Anderson OR you are ready for an example of what makes indie films so intriguing to those of us who crave them

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  your movie preferences lean towards straightforward entertainment rather than off-beat dialogue from disturbed characters

watch the trailer: