Your Name

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As a fan of Miyazaki films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away and the Toho production company, I enjoyed the animation in this film immensely. The film directed by Makoto Shinkai was a mash up of Freaky Friday, Memento and Vertigo and at times didn’t seem to make sense. But I had that expectation going in so it didn’t bother me. The film itself is the fourth highest-grossing of all time in Japan and the highest-grossing anime film worldwide at over 350 million.

Oddly, I felt the overtones of guilt and sadness as if the comet that we know will destroy a small seaside town was a nuclear bomb and the director/producer/writer feels bad they can not take everyone to shelter. The main characters in the film feel that way. Of course, I may be reading too much into it but that was a passing thought. And obviously, the movie did resonate and have a strong emotional impact on many viewers for a reason.

The film was quirky with one character constantly feeling him/her self up to good laughs. And just some non-sequitur situations and shots like why is the boy/girls underwear prominently seen in a bike riding scene? It’s a Japanese thing, you wouldn’t understand.

The film certainly had strong spiritual and humanistic dimensions, including a Cyrano de Bergerac subplot which I found to be refreshing. One of us here at the L & D fell asleep during the screening but since a lot of the action occurs during dreams I think the filmmakers wouldn’t mind too much. If you’re into Japan, anime or any type of animated film I highly recommend this film to you.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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As you know, the comic book / graphic novel genre is whoosh, right over my head. When I see these films, it’s like some kind of social experiment. Like, how confused can one person be if they walk right into the middle of a Hollywood tentpole franchise? Well Guardians 2, didn’t make me feel like that. Even if it was only days later when I figured out who Gamora is. …The raccoon, named Rocket and voiced by Bradley Cooper, keeps me scratching my head, except to think, the creators are super imaginative and/or must have the ickiest of the stickiest on heavy rotation in the bong.

I enjoyed the film as it did make plenty of homages to the 70s, including star Kurt Russell. Though it did give me a real desire to see Escape from New York again…almost to the point that I wished I was watching Escape from NY instead of Guardians Vol 2.

The film seemed to drag on sadly. And though the special effects of this 200 million dollar VFX masterpiece were inventive and of the highest caliber production value, the story itself seemed to be locked in a repetitious death spiral. The film could easily have been 30 minutes shorter.

Also, there was some serious plot strain / suspension of disbelief needed when it was reveled that Ego, Russell’s character, had killed the main protagonists’ mother. Isn’t it enough that he is an egomaniac hell bent on destroying life on several planets. It was a forced addition to the plot line that seemed over the top even in this universe. (When reviewing this genre I have to say “universe” at least once.)

Overall, I liked this film. It had spectacular camera work and special effects. The acting and voicing were all strong and the only ding I have is that it seemed repetitious story-wise in the final 30 minutes. I think sometimes directors or producers just fall in love with their work and there is no one there to simply say “No” to Stan Lee, when he needs to hear it. And yet, if you are a fan of this genre, I would strongly suspect that you would enjoy Guardians Vol 2.

The Lost City of Z

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I had a feeling that LCoZ would be a pretty good movie when I found out it was produced by Plan B. Plan B is Brad Pitt’s production company. Plan B has distinguished itself with academy awards for producing The Departed, 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight among other enlightening and entertaining works. LCoZ falls in that category, a film that on its face could be chalked up as just another adventure yarn instead pulls in the long arm of colonial mentality and history.

The story follows Col. Percy Fawcett, (Charlie Hunnam, who has an indisputable Pitt aura)  on his journeys in the Brazilian Amazon.

One aspect of the film that rings false is the relationship of the Col. Fawcett with his wife. It’s high minded to include a strong female character but in this case, it comes off as forced and doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test (did at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man). Nina Fawcett, played well by Sienna Miller, really doesn’t have that much to do. She is neither a foil, as she acquiesces to Percy and then their sons’ requests to leave nor an active participant in the search for the lost city, as Col Fawcett does not allow her to go. There is a lot of lip service paid to how heroic domestic life is but that just seems to reinforce how great it is to jet out of there and hit the jungle. And hit the jungle they do in this film. There is plenty of high stakes action, tribal and expeditionary drama and just sick scenery and cinematography by the great Darius Khondji, who also shot Seven.

The Lost City of Z is an epic tale that takes you from the bunkers of WWI to the most remote ares of the Amazon. If you are into adventure stories this one will satisfy you and leave you with a thing or two to think about in your own life. One of the lines in the film that really spoke to me, and I paraphrase, was “Keep your goals just out of reach so you will keep striving to achieve them.” I thought that in the end, LCoZ is a film that gives the audience something to think about and that alone deserves to be applauded.

Ghost in the Shell

I came into Ghost in the Shell with high expectations and left a little disappointed.  The movie itself is visually stunning and Scarlett Johansson is a bona fide action hero, but the story was meh and to me that was the difference between it being good and great.

I have two main gripes.

The first gripe is that I knew too much about what was going on – the trailers gave away enough of the plot so that when the turn came it lost its impact. Johansson’s cyborg with a human brain character is the logical conclusion of Jason Bourne arc (or at least the penultimate stage of that arc), and the trailer plot giveaways let us know that there is some deep dark secret in the character’s past, a la the Bourne universe.  The upshot for me is that I kind of knew where we were headed, and when we got there I wasn’t sure who to root for or whether it really mattered one way or the other (indeed, this particular brand of ambiguity was probably the deal-breaker for me; the moral dilemmas presented didn’t have me torn so much as they had me yawn, have I seen this film before?).   It wasn’t all the trailer, though, within the first five minutes of the movie I leaned over to L and said, “oooh, the bad guy,” so that plotline was about as surprising as bad breath on a lost dog.

The second problem, ironically, is that I didn’t know enough about what was going on to find it interesting.  Some of the more positive reviews I’ve seen seem very conversant from the source material, including this one from the A.V. Club.  I haven’t seen Mamoru Oshii’s sci-fi animated feature, played a video game influenced by it, or have any clue about Masamune Shirow’s manga series or any of the later animated adaptions coming from that, so I’m sure there are all sorts of bon bons in the plot and the cinescape that fans enjoyed and I didn’t.  Sometimes when I watch superhero movies with comic book nerds they will be pointing me to some interesting or even delicious asides that add to their enjoyment, but such hat tips to the source material should enhance the enjoyment for the true devotees, not be decisive in terms of the overall enjoyment of the film.  Certainly not in a hyped up, would-be blockbuster such as this.

But the movie was not without its charms and I mostly enjoyed watching it, despite the absence of real intrigue.  Whatever Japanese city that was was really super cool, and the holograms and flying saucers and buildings and riverfront shots and all that were really spectacular, like Blade Runner with 21st-century special effects.   Equally spectacular were the hairdos of many of the main characters, particularly the Pilou Asbæk and Beat Tikano (Dudes, great hair!!!!)…. leaving one to wonder why Johansson didn’t ask for some hair work herself, as her synthetic wig thing was about the only non-jaw dropping thing about her.  I guess as long as I’m nit-picking the star, I’d say she was saddled with this lumbering gait, like she was wearing wet shoes, that was never explained, but it didn’t seem to affect her when she was kicking ass and taking names, which she did a lot of.

Way over the $5 bar, sure, and I’m sure I’ll catch it again when it’s on the tube, but I was expecting better.

Life

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Once again, like Collide, the sum of its parts does not make a movie whole. This film suffered with the casting of Ryan Reynolds, not because he didn’t steal the movie, which he did, but because again, you would rather be watching the Deadpool sequel (which is not out yet). This film tried to be Alien but the little bad guy, Calvin the Martian, was simply not all that. The alien in Alien had more horror packed in its pinky than all of Calvin’s ever shape shifting body. Actually Calvin had a lot of similarities to the heptapod aliens, Abbot and Costello, in Arrival, with his spongy physique and springy arms. Which leaves me to ask, what’s with all the cephalopod aliens all of a sudden? The visual effects designers must find them easy to create and animate. Though it is kind of a cool throwback to the legends of giant squids attacking old schooners out on the wild high seas.

I actually thought the acting was solid. Except for Jake Gyllenhaal who must think we won’t notice he just did Donnie Darko in space. The set design was well done, but nothing we have never seen before. Perhaps the Passengers set surpasses it.  Seamus McGarvey, a genius Cinematographer who has done everything from High Fidelity to The Accountant is outstanding as usual. For me this movie meets our $5 threshold just for that. But in general, nothing here is anything that you haven’t seen before or you can’t see coming a mile away. And I mean a mile away. It seemed to take forever to unravel. ACT III really should have been preceded by a pop-corn / hooch break.

I would say it was a totally forgettable film. Except that it wasn’t. There were some good acting moments that did elicit existential angst. The film was able to sustain tension well. D in fact, did jump a few times. We should quantify those reactions and start charting the “D Scale”.  Also, I was creeped out enough to start seeing Calvin in all sorts of places. Even the nose blowing emoji in my text message app. So that should count for something.

Logan

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If you want to see what Stranger Things would look like on a cocktail of meth and BGH then Logan is for you. Also, if you don’t mind or even relish, if that is possible, watching a giant forked hand go through about 10 skulls like a serving fork through and overly ripe cantaloupe — then again, this film was literally made just for you. As for the rest of us, Logan was really was a downward spiral but did have some redeeming qualities. The film did show some heart, some actual human emotion, at least more than the more recent films I have seen like Collide or John Wick 2. I think Marvel takes a lot of pride in their output and you can see that they tried in terms of production value. One big mistake here was tacking a Deadpool coming attraction to the beginning of the film. For the first 30 minutes you are left wondering how long until Deadpool comes out. And ultimately, I think Patrick Stewart is wasted in this roll, though again they try to give him screen time and something important to say. Apparently it will be his last time playing Professor Charles Xavier. I just never got used to his character. However, that may have to do more with me, since Superhero/Comic Book films are not my forte. I spend half of these films trying to get comfortable in “the universe” (I have learned to use this term since beginning to write about this genre) and wondering about the references I seem to be only half getting or totally missing.

It’s interesting how comic books, or in the case of John Wick, a video game, can become a movie. Or did the movie create the comic book or video game? And does it matter anymore? I remember a cheap paperback of a Dirty Harry movie. The book was written after the movie was a hit, as a way to cash in on it. You could tell after the first few pages. I was watching Linklater’s Waking Life on Netflix last night. It is a live action film, tweeked to have a comic book look. It really does have a unique feel. I don’t have any problem with all of this style and genre and format mashing but each work should take advantage of the unique values its particular medium. If I want to play a video game, I will do that. If I want to read a comic book, the same. All to say, once again, that Deadpool for example, got it right. There is a line to walk here and it should be respected. Notwithstanding, if you go in for the comic book genre, Logan is a must see.

Kong

Kong: Skull Island.  The scenery is pretty spectacular. The monkey isn’t bad. There are many moments of surprise, intrigue, shock and awe (as well as “aw, that’s gross”).  But the storytelling is poor and that sinks the project.

The movie is set in the final days of the Vietnam War and with its constant allusions to Apocalypse Now forces us to ask where the line is between “homage” and “painfully derivative and stupid.”  From the choice and use of music to the helicopter sequences to the journeys up and down various bodies of water to the napalm detonations to the singularly obsessed military officer, there are many points of comparison (though never even remotely favorably).

Of course, it is difficult to compete with the classics and, in fairness, there are a few bright spots.   Samuel L. Jackson has some good lines in a pretty cool trip through the clouds.  There are some good action sequences, particularly with the big guy tossing stuff around with the accuracy of Greg Maddux and his UFC-style grappling with various slimy creatures.  I also really liked the island itself, particularly the glow of the nighttime lights.

Unfortunately, the list of things to object to runs so much longer that I’m not even sure it’s worth dredging them up.   John Goodman is completely wasted.   John C. Reilly is worse than wasted, as his lines and his story trajectory are painful. The Brie Larson “anti-war” photographer angle is even less developed than her would-be romance with the  pro-war mercenary Tom Hiddleston character (If Kong had accidentally squished the Larson character in his clenched fist, that would have really made up for a lot of the movie’s other shortcomings).  John Ortiz, who I loved in Drop, has no discernible role. Indeed, there must be four or five story arcs falling into the categories of undeveloped, underdeveloped, stupid, insulting to the intelligence, and poorly thought out (most falling into several of these categories) passing time until we get to the climactic sequence.

So the verdict here is to keep the $5 in your pocket.  How this isn’t completely panned on Metacritic is definitely a mystery.  I would have walked out, but when I looked over my colleague was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake him up.

The horror, indeed.

John Wick, Chapter 2

We ventured out to see *John Wick, Chapter 2* this past Thursday, a testosterone-fueled affair where all but two of the principals are males.  The first is the target of a hit, and she demonstrates her defiance by stripping naked for the protagonist and jumping in a tub.  The second is a mute who is pretty masculine in her own right, with cropped hair and a conventional men’s suit.  She’s also tatted up.   What is going on with her is not exactly clear. The love interest is actually just a picture of his former love interest (who must have died in the previous movie?) and probably doesn’t count as a character, unless you need at least three females in the film to get it green-lighted in Hollywood these days.

Not that I was expecting it, but not a real feminine touch here.

The real love interest, it turns out, is John Wick’s dog, who behaves a lot like a woman typically behaves in these affairs — follows the hero around and focuses its attention solely on the hero (in this case literally sitting at attention until it is told it can do otherwise). The dog doesn’t have a name, either, which is both mildly comedic and instructive.

What the movie lacks in women, it makes up for in action, and in spots the action is brilliant.  The initial chase scene contains several moments where L&D (and our special guest, A) jumped out of our seats or covered our faces or shouted “OH!” and generally reacted in ways men react when they see another man take a direct and unexpected shot to the nutuals.  This is John Wick at its best.  The film also featured dozens of shots where the victim’s brain and skull spatter out the back of the head.  For example, Mr. Wick might angle the gun below a victim and the bullet would come out the back of the victim’s head, along with residual brain and skull, sort of like seeing the silhouette of water out of a fountain.

In fairness, most of the victims had it coming.

Speaking of fountains, I also liked the scene where hero and one of the villains were shooting at each other blindly through the fountain.   Why they were being so coy in the station a minute earlier and then start blindly shooting at each other out in the open is an unanswerable question, and if you see the film, you will not be able to answer it, either.

This is pure, live-action comic book.   Which, I gather, is pure live-action first-person gaming these days.  If you like watching people play first-person shooter video games, this is the movie for you.

But for the rest of us, even low expectations going in wasn’t enough to save it.  This movie has no heart.  The story isn’t interesting.  The characters aren’t interesting.  The great Ian McShane gets to play a priggish bore, like Teddy Bass running his own retirement community or a modern-day Al Swearengen who doesn’t allow swearing within his club. The only grasp at sex appeal in the entire affair is immediately supplanted with noirish bloodletting.

And even the villain isn’t that villainous,  at least not in a way that inspires true audience animus or awe. Aren’t great action movies as much about the villain as the hero?  Darth Vader, the Joker, Hans Gruber, Sam Gerard.  That’s probably as much of a deal breaker as anything.

Heart and a good Villain.  We will return to these themes in future posts, I’m certain.

As for the verdict:   For me, the movie was saved by low expectations and I got my $5 worth.

It passes the time.

It shocks.

It awes.

And then, like it never happened, I go home and forget all about it.

Unfortunately, my colleague was expecting more and was sorely, sorely disappointed.   So, plan accordingly.

Collide

There are many, many things colliding in the new Hollywood mashup Collide, coming soon to video near you.

The movie is set in Germany of all places, following the trajectory of Casey Stein, a reasonably good-looking American ex-pat with really big blue eyes (Nicholas Hoult).  Casey is involved in some illicit activities, acting as the pickup boy for the the underworld boss, Gerun (played by Ben Kingsley). At first glance, Kingsley seems  to be reprising his role as the bumptious bald guy from Sexy Beast, only with a different accent and a gaudier wardrobe, something along the lines of “Evil Bono” (ht: L). In this case, however, Kingsley is less worried about recruiting henchmen than he is about getting a fair cut from his boss, the trucking magnate Englishman thugmeister, Anthony Hopkins (played by Anthony Hopkins).  The uneasy tension sets the stage for a mutinous collision, of course.

Meanwhile, Casey has his eye on the good-looking American ex-pat bartender, Juliette (Felicity Jones), who doesn’t approve of his profession.  So, head-over-heels in love, Casey goes straight and starts working as a salt-of-the-earth guy in one of the many jobs available to Americans in European metal scrapyards, while the couple do the efficient German thing and fall in love over the course of a couple minute montage.  But, alas, their booze-fueled affair hits an icy patch, and the couple find themselves in the need of a very quick cash infusion, setting Romeo back to the underworld for that one last big chivalrous score. The cliches come Fast & Furious, and what ensues is the aforementioned gangster-heist-car chase-action hero mashup, with cars traveling at blistering speeds down the autobahn and things crashing and blowing up here and thar, leading to the climatic collision between the principals.  I’m guessing you can guess what happens from here.

One change from this standard formula is that Hopkins’ henchmen all have dark hair and steely blue eyes, sport monochromatic clothing, and excitedly shout things out in German during some heated moments, adding (probably inadvertent) comic effect to the extended manhunt. (It is possible these henchmen are all played by the same actor, with a beard tacked on at times to mix things up; the credits for actors was much shorter than the list of stuntmen).

Some of the sequences are done really well and, coupled with Hopkins in a fabulous light-blue suit and Kingsley parading around in high-end pajamas, hopped up on gop, it makes for a rather enjoyable, at times laugh-out-loud funny, 90 minutes or so.

I can think of worse ways to spend my $5, but I’m not so sure I’d spend too much more than that on this film.

Lion

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For anyone who has done any significant exploration into their genealogy, Lion is going to be a powerful experience. I watched the third act with a lump in my throat.

This film, whose simple story could easily be described in a line or two, to the point that you might consider not watching it, was actually layered and complex. The film is carried by a brilliant young actor Sunny Pawar (I haven’t seen such great acting by a child, in fact all the kids in Lion, since Beasts of No Nation in 2015) and also Dev Patel who is deservedly up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Lion has enormous heart. In this past year of weekly movie viewing, I have come to realize that it’s one of the single most important elements in a film. In current movies, technical capabilities are limitless and have generally been conquered via VFX and/or tons of cash. So for me, production value, though key, will not save a movie if the story is about let’s say two self-absorbed kids seeking fame at the cost of their own love. But in Lion, the story is one that, like Moonlight, centers around self-discovery. And this journey is absolutely necessary for the continued survival of the protagonist. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher.

Lion made it right under the wire into my top 10 list for 2016 and I highly recommend it.