Isn't It Romantic is a charming and very funny film that gets a ton of mileage out of its lead star, Rebel Wilson, who comes across as very likable in her first starring role. She uses her trademark deadpan humor and sly delivery to great effect, but she also manages to find the heart and sympathy of her character. The movie she's in walks the fine line between tribute and parody, where romantic comedy cliches are both ridiculed and celebrated, often in the same scene. Wilson's performance gives the same difficult balancing act, as she plays a roman who hates romantic comedies who suddenly finds herself trapped in the most sanitized and fantasy-driven one imaginable.
This is a movie that not only pokes fun at past romantic comedies like Pretty Woman, 13 Going on 30, Sweet Home Alabama and My Best Friend's Wedding, but it also dares itself to ask some serious questions about the plots of these kind of movies. Questions like, why is it always raining when lovers kiss? Why does the lead heroine have a gay best friend, and what does that friend do all day when he's not helping her picking out clothes for a montage? And if there is another woman in the same office as the heroine, why does the other woman have to be her mortal enemy? Why can't they just work together? The screenplay by TV actress Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox (How to Be Single) and Katie Silberman is smart enough to tow the line between respecting the appeal of these kind of movies, while also pointing out just how ridiculous they can be. And director Todd Strauss-Schulson has shot a large majority of the film with a sun-drenched lens that makes everything look like an episode of Martha Stewart. According to the press notes, he watched 65 romantic comedies over the course of two weeks in order to prepare for this. He definitely shows his work. Could the movie have been even smarter and funnier with poking fun at the genre. Definitely. But what we get here is still very good.
Wilson plays Natalie, a struggling architect in New York who lives in a dingy and small apartment where her only company is a dog who barely listens to or respects her. The people at her job don't pay her much mind, either. When she shows up for a meeting, one of the big shots mistakes her for the coffee girl. The only bright spot in her life is her co-worker Josh (Wilson's Pitch Perfect co-star Adam Devine), who clearly loves her, but she just can't notice. Natalie hates romantic comedies, thinking that they are nothing but fantasies and lies that Hollywood sells to gullible women. (In the film's opening scene, we get a funny flashback with Natalie as a child watching Pretty Woman with her mom, and her mom explaining why Hollywood will never make a movie about real women like them.) One night while heading home, Natalie gets jumped by a mugger after her purse, and when she tries to escape, she bonks her head on a pole. Just last week, I talked about the "Magical Head Injury" plot devise that movies are so fond of these days in my review of What Men Want, and sure enough, Natalie somehow finds herself transported into the world of the PG-13 romantic comedy.
She knows something is off right away when she finds herself in a lovely and sun-drenched hospital room, being looked over by an impossibly handsome doctor. She steps out onto the streets where she finds New York has been transformed into a fantasy land where flowers are everywhere, all the businesses have become cupcake and bridal shops, and the air smells fresh and clean. Not only that, but every single man now notices her. Mere seconds after leaving the hospital, she has a run-in with the handsome Australian billionaire, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), who can't stop talking about how beguiling Natalie is. He takes her home to her apartment in his limo, and she finds that her apartment has been transformed into a spacious suite with huge windows, and a massive closet with every pair of shoe she's ever desired in life. Her dog now does tricks on command for the camera, and her neighbor across the hall (Brandon Scott Jones) has turned from the shady individual he was in the real world, into a flamboyant and flaming gay stereotype who lives only to help Natalie with her relationships and to offer advice.
Things have changed at work, too. Everyone now respects her opinion, except for her former friend at her job, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), who is now her bitter rival, as evidenced that every time there is two women working at the same job in a romantic comedy, they have to be put against each other. Her other friend, Josh, is also now madly in love with the model-like "Yoga Ambassador" Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), and they start planning their wedding mere days after they have their own romantic run-in. Natalie must now figure out what she needs to do to return to her old life, while also learning lessons about the mistakes she has made in past relationships, and in neglecting Josh's affections back in the real world. She enjoys a whirlwind fling with the handsome and charming Blake (who takes her on rides on his yacht and private helicopter), but is it what she really wants out of life? More importantly, is it Josh that she really wants, or is she just supposed to be happy with herself?
Isn't It Romantic eventually does take the form of the kind of romantic comedy that it was previously spoofing, but even when it does, it remains funny thanks to Wilson's strong comedic performance. The rest of the cast also stand out, especially Hemsworth as the goofy romantic billionaire who automatically becomes smitten with Natalie for no real good reason. The movie is constantly walking a balancing act between ridicule and respect, and it always manages to find the right mix. It's self-aware, but it also knows why audiences love these cliches in the first place. And at only 88 minutes, the movie is so quick and breezy, it never overstays its welcome. The movie has been edited in such a way that it seldom if ever drags. There is no filler, and it simply goes from one gag to the next. Again, it is Wilson who carries the entire film, and she does so effortlessly, willingly throwing herself into every situation the movie throws at her. And yes, that includes the standard overly choreographed musical number when her friends and her get together for karaoke.
This is one of those movies that desperately wants to please its audience, and it succeeds by giving us a winning mix of smart self-awareness, and embracing what makes these films work in the first place. It's made by smart people who know the ins and outs of the genre, and why they can ultimately work when they're done well. As the film started out, I was laughing at the way it was spoofing the conventions of the genre. But as it went on, I found myself smiling because I was actually wrapped into the characters.
2017's Happy Death Day was an extremely clever and fun mix of slasher thrillers and the basic plot of Groundhog Day, where its lead heroine Tree Gelbman (played by the winning Jessica Rothe) had to solve her own murder by reliving the day she died over and over. It had a sharp sense of humor, and a surprisingly strong human center, as Tree was forced to learn from her own mistakes, and become a better person in the process. It was one of the year's more pleasant surprises to me, and my admiration for it has only grown as I have rewatched it since its release.
In Happy Death Day 2U, returning director Christopher Landon (who has taken over script writing duties this time around) has kept everything that worked in the original in tact, but this time seems to be focused much more strongly on the Science Fiction angle of the story, rather than the slasher elements. Yes, someone is still trying to kill Tree, and the mystery murderer still wears a goofy baby mask to cover their identity that looks an awful lot like Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But Landon's screenplay seems much more bent on the fantastic elements of the story, which includes parallel dimensions and time paradoxes. There's a good reason why a couple of the characters bring up Back to the Future Part II in one scene, as both movies are about convoluted but fun timelines where characters from the original movie face different fates, or have a completely different personality or outcome all together. Some people may be disappointed that the movie has almost abandoned the thriller element, as the movie is being advertised as a slasher film with a comic bent. But, I personally had a blast with this.
Just like before, Tree is at the center of it all, and Rothe's performance is filled with strong comic timing and on-screen charm. As much as I enjoy her in these movies, I do hope she gets to move beyond them soon, and get some other great roles. I personally think she would do great as the lead in a smart romantic comedy. Also back is Ryan (Phi Vu), who had a minor role in the original as the roommate of Tree's eventual love interest, Carter (Israel Broussard), but he gets upgraded to a main supporting role here, as it turns out he and some of his friends (including Carter) have been working on a science experiment in the campus basement that manipulates time, and was the cause for Tree reliving the same day over and over the last time around. To make a long and very complicated story short, something goes wrong with said experiment, and Tree finds herself reliving the same day from the first movie over again. She wakes up in Carter's dorm room, it's Monday the 18th (her birthday), and a deranged person hiding their face with a baby mask is lurking about trying to kill her. Also like before, every time Tree dies, she wakes up in bed, starting the day over again.
However, this time, everything is different. I cannot go into too much detail, but the fun of the film is seeing how things have been mixed up or altered from the first movie. Some characters are acting different, some are in relationships when they were not before, and entire plot elements or the fates of certain characters have been switched around. Tree has somehow been warped to a parallel universe that is like her world, but things are on a different path. Again, I cannot go into any detail. All I will say is don't even think of watching this unless you watch the original beforehand. In fact, I would almost recommend a back-to-back screening of both movies, so you can pick up on all the details and how things have been changed. This is a movie that loves to subvert the expectations of those who are familiar with the first, and that's one of the things I loved about it. So many sequels repeat the same formula and structure, only raising the stakes. What Landon has done is make a sequel that starts out following the rules set by the first, and then goes off into entirely different, imaginative and increasingly funny directions.
Just like last month's Glass, Happy Death Day 2U is made for an extremely specific audience. This time, however, I felt like I was part of the crowd, rather than an outsider. I loved seeing how the movie would play against my expectations, and I especially loved seeing Tree reacting to these changes, which get some of the biggest laughs in the film. This is a movie built around throwing metaphorical curve balls into its plot, but it does play fair. Even if things are different, these are still the people we came to love from before. This is a sequel that knows what made the original a success, and knows what to keep, and what to subvert. The movie doesn't really bother with introducing any newcomers into the mix. It's all about giving the characters from the first new roles to play, and sometimes expanded ones as events play out differently.
I admire what the filmmakers have done with this, but I honestly hope they stop here, as I'm not sure how much more they can bend things to keep the formula a success. If the original was a pleasant, clever and funny surprise, then this is in a lot of ways even more clever and funny. Just don't walk into this one cold. Not only will you not get the jokes, you probably won't get the entire movie itself.
Based on the successful early 90s Japanese manga by Yukito Kishiro, Alita: Battle Angel bucks the long trend of Hollywood's streak of unwatchable live action adaptations of anime and manga. If you want to make a fan angry, all one needs to do is mention past efforts like Dragon Ball: Evolution or Death Note. And while the live action Ghost in the Shell wasn't terrible, it was also overly simplified compared to its animated counterpart. Here, we get a film that is fairly accurate to its source material, both for better and worse. It's not perfect by any means, but it's a huge improvement over what's come before.
This movie has been in the mind of producer and co-writer James Cameron for over 20 years, as he's been talking about bringing Kishiro's futuristic story to the big screen since around the time the original run of the manga wrapped up. Supposedly, he didn't feel that special effects technology had reached the level to bring his vision to life until now. However, due to his commitments to the upcoming Avatar sequels, he had to step away from helming the project, and turned the director's chair over to Robert Rodriguez. It was a wise choice, as Rodriguez manages to capture the story and spirit of the original comic, while perfectly recreating Cameron's grand vision for a spectacle live action film. This can be a stunning film to look at, with its futuristic landscapes and cast made up largely of human-like cyborgs that are a mix of CG and motion capture performances. There's hardly a single shot in the film that does not contain some sort of digital effect, but it is never overwhelming, not even when the action heats up, and the robots start punching holes in each other or slicing their enemies in two. (Despite the PG-13 rating, this is a very violent film. Were it not for the fact that all the violence largely happens to cyborgs and robots, this would have been a hard-R.)
The one thing I noticed throughout the film is just how beautifully edited it is. In the early moments, the movie allows us plenty of time to take in the sights of the world the special effects artists and set designers have created. We don't feel like we're being cheated, and we get to soak in a lot of the details. Even during the more action heavy Second and Third Acts, the movie does not become jumbled or confusing. One of my biggest gripes when it comes to going to the movies in recent years is how chaotic a lot of action scenes have become. Filmmakers become so obsessed with filling every square inch of the screen with CG, effects and explosions, that sometimes the mind simply cannot process it all. That never happens here. All of the action has a flow, and we're allowed plenty of time to glimpse the action, so it never comes across as a failed tech demo. When cyborg heroine Alita is forced to participate in a deadly sport called Motorball (which comes across as kind of a roller derby crossed with a hyper-violent video game), we are able to follow every action and movement up on the screen, and never become lost in the chaos. This allows us in the audience to truly take in the craft that went into the complex visuals.
Where Alita is slightly less assured is in its script and storytelling. The movie is largely based on the first four collected volumes of the comic, and it can feel like information overload at times. There are so many characters, plot developments and ideas that it's easy to get lost, unless you hold knowledge of the earlier tellings of the story. (The comic was adapted into a two-part made for video anime in the mid-90s, which this film seems to draw a lot of inspiration from.) There is a lot of technical jargon in the dialogue, as well as scenes where talented actors like Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali do nothing but spew exposition for the sake of the audience. In all fairness, the movie never really becomes so convoluted that it can't be followed, but we definitely feel the sacrifice of some potentially interesting characters or ideas that don't get the attention they deserve, because the script by Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis and Rodriguez tries to fit so much material in here. And when you get right down to it, the movie simply exists to tease sequels, as there's really no conclusion at the end. Everything's left hanging open when the end credits arrive, and unless this movie becomes a runaway hit, we probably won't get a sequel to provide the answers this movie needs. I'm not a fan of this approach. I prefer it when filmmakers give us a completely satisfying conclusion, with the hint of more to come.
The movie can also feel derivative at times, and borrows elements from everything from classic Sci-Fi like Blade Runner, to 1975's Rollerball, and even Jack the Ripper. However, you have to remember how old this story actually is, and how often and heavily Japanese manga writers and artists are influenced by American pop culture. The same goes for Hollywood as well, as they have been taking images and ideas from popular anime for their Sci-Fi for years now. That's always one of the core problems when it comes to adapting manga or anime into a big budget Hollywood film. Both industries draw upon each other so blatantly and frequently at times that when the two come together, it can sometimes feel like they are cannibalizing each other. That being said, the movie does offer enough unique sights and visuals, as well as action spectacle, that it's worth watching on the big screen.
What holds our interest throughout is the lead character of Alita herself. Played by Rosa Salazar (from the Maze Runner films), Alita starts the film off as a scrapped cyborg torso found in a junkyard by the kind and haunted cyber physician Dr. Ito (Christoph Waltz). He lives in Iron City, a poor community made up of people from different walks of life who survived an apocalyptic war 300 years ago. There is a mysterious city that floats in the sky overhead, but no one on the ground is allowed to go up there. Ito gives Alita a new cyborg body and activates her, even though she has no memories of who she is and what she was built for. As Alita explores Iron City with Ito and the young human boy she starts to fall for named Hugo (Keean Johnson), she develops a strong sense of justice and what is right. She also seems to hold incredible strength and fighting ability, which leads Ito to believe that she may have been a cyborg warrior from the city up above in the past. Alita begins to have flashbacks to her past, and begins taking jobs as a bounty hunter of sorts, tracking down rogue cyborgs or humans who try to rob cyborgs of their parts and sell them for profit.
The movie follows Alita's journey from a child-like innocent, to a battle-hardened warrior who is willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. Salazar (working through motion capture and CG animation) is able to create a believable and likeable heroine who is never quite real, but is always compelling to watch. The big issue that comes with her character are her eyes, which have been enlarged with the aid of special effects to make her look like her anime counterpart. This is a surprisingly easy hurdle to get past while you are watching the film, because Salazar is effective enough that we focus on her performance, and not on how she has been altered in post production. Her character has a strong moral compass, and it comes through in the performance. The only wrong note the filmmakers do with the character is that they make her nearly invincible in every single fight and action scene she's in, which lessens the tension. Even when she's been reduced to almost nothing but a torso with a single arm by an attacker, she can still punch a hole right through her attacker's skull.
Even with the wrong steps that it occasionally takes, Alita: Battle Angel is compelling enough to draw its audience into its world, and to follow its complex and largely unresolved plotting. The only question is will this be enough to warrant the sequel that it so obviously desires. It will be a daunting task, as the source material is not too well known here in the US, and the movie has a budget reportedly of over $200 million, so it will take a lot to become a blockbuster. Still, I will be hopeful. I would like to see more of this world and of Salazar's interpretation of the main heroine. It's far from perfect, but in my eyes, it's the best attempt Hollywood has made to adapt a manga into live action.
Well, seeing as though everybody else has had their "best of the year"
list out since December, I guess I should get off my lazy behind, and
get one out also, shouldn't I? As always, I have a good excuse. As a
regular paying filmgoer, I choose to hold off on this list until I
can see as many of the year's films as I can. And since many of the big
end of the year films usually expand slowly (sometimes very slowly)
into wide release around January-February, I choose to wait. I did get
to see most of the major end of the year releases,
so I feel the time is ready to make the list.
As usual, I will be naming my favorite film of the year, followed by
what I felt were the great films of 2018. The great films can be
anything that truly grabbed my attention, so they can be dramas,
comedies, kid's films, whatever. Then I'll be listing the "honorable
mentions" (the runner ups), followed by my 10 favorite actor and actress
performances of the year. Aside from Best Film, all of these choices
will be listed in alphabetical order.
So, with that out of the way, let's get down to the important stuff - the movies.
THE BEST FILM OF 2018
LEAVE NO TRACE - Here is a movie that is quiet, assured, and the year's best film, in my eyes. It doesn't spell a
lot of things out for the audience, and there are a lot of moments that
rely simply on atmosphere and the actor's faces in order to get the
point across. And yet, the movie is constantly absorbing, and as
thrilling as any drama can be. This is one of those movies that you
should go out of your way to see, and want to tell others to see as soon
as possible. Writer-director Debra Granik has a talent for discovering new female acting talent. Her last film, 2010's Winter's Bone,
was the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence's career. With this
movie, she introduces us to Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young actress
from New Zealand, and one of the true breakout performances of the
year. She plays Tom, a 13-year-old girl
who lives in the forest along with her veteran father Will (Ben Foster,
also powerful here). He has PTSD after his time fighting in the war,
and cannot handle modern life anymore ever since the death of his wife
when Tom was very young. And so the two have been living "off the
grid", only going into town for Will's required medications and other
necessities when needed. Leave No Trace ultimately becomes a story of how this close
father and daughter relationship becomes divided when Tom experiences
modern society for the first time, and learns to enjoy it. Will, however, becomes restless in a home environment. He wants to go
back to where they were, but the question becomes if he has his
daughter's best interests in mind. We can
simply see the pain on the faces of these two as they feel they are
being pulled apart, because they both want something different. The way that the movie expresses this is incredibly powerful, yet never
overstated. As glimmers of hope begin to form for a better life for
Tom, we also see how hard it is on her, because she has so much respect
for her dad. She never exactly expresses this in dialogue, but we can
see it in so many other ways. This is a wonderfully subtle movie that
captures the emotion of love, loss and letting go with minimal
storytelling. And by the time we get to the film's quiet but striking
final scene, we are incredibly moved by the simple image we see. Leave No Trace manages to be a unique but accessible film that should speak to just about anyone who watches it.
THE GREAT FILMS OF 2018 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
A QUIET PLACE - John Krasinski's A Quiet Place is a cinematic short story that
wastes no time. It sets us into its world and introduces and allows us
to sympathize with its main characters in a matter of minutes. It then
uses atmosphere and economic story telling to wrap us into its plot in a
way that few horror films have ever even attempted. Each scene seems
designed to raise the stakes, either emotionally with the characters, or
through the physical threat that is hunting them. This is as lean,
tight, and as intense a thriller as you are likely to see. The film drops us into a mostly abandoned post-apocalyptic world. Through
scattered newspapers that are lying about on the street, we see reports
of some kind of possibly alien menace that are attracted to and hunt
their victims by sound, and have apparently wiped out a majority of the
world's population. We are then introduced to a family of survivors.
Krasinski (who co-wrote the script, as well as directs and stars) plays
the unnamed father who has devoted his life to keeping his family alive
during and after the attack. His real-life wife, Emily Blunt, is the
mother, and their three children are played by Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe and
Cade Woodward. The family has survived this long because they speak to
each other in sign language, with subtitles provided for the audience.
Their eldest daughter is deaf (as is young Millicent Simmonds in real
life), so we have a hunch that knowing sign language in advance has
become a survival tool in a world where the slightest sound can attract
the giant creatures who are usually hiding in the trees or bushes before
they strike. A Quiet Place is an entirely visual film. There is almost no
spoken dialogue, and just about any sound in the movie is used as an
instant moment of tension. The movie also displays a brilliantly economical way of storytelling.
Not a single shot is wasted here, and almost every moment is used to
further the suspense or the characters. This is as much an emotional drama as it is a thriller, and it succeeds at both.
A STAR IS BORN - The latest take on A Star is Born (this is the fourth time
Hollywood has made this movie, since the original in 1937) reminds us of
a simple lesson in filmmaking - Sometimes it's not the story being
told, but rather the way it's being told. This movie keeps most of the
familiar story beats that has been with the tale since the beginning, as
well as taking place in the world of music, just like the 1976 version
starring Barbara Streisand. However, it's been updated enough, and
shows that in his directorial debut, that Bradley Cooper can helm a film
with a sure and steady hand. For such a rehashed property, it's amazing how nothing here feels
unnecessary. Cooper not only directs, but also stars, and the chemistry
that he shares with his co-star Lady Gaga (who is headlining a film for
the first time here) is palpable, and stands for much of the film's
success. There is a dramatic and romantic connection between the two
leads that feels absolutely genuine. While the story is a melodrama at
heart, the movie does not go out of its way to place its central lovers
in contrived situations. Instead, it allows us to see these two
characters fall in love with each other, and then they have to face each
other's personal demons, which is the way it is for every couple.
That's the beauty of the story, and why it is so loved by Hollywood.
It's a simple story with relatable themes, and when done well (as it has
been here), it can not only be incredibly moving, but also an automatic
crowd pleaser. What makes this particular take on the story succeed is not just the
believable romance between the two leads, but also how believably the
film handles addiction. The movie never once over-dramatizes, or uses
addiction for a cheap plot gimmick. We get to see the bleak realities
of what it can do to a person, as well as to a relationship, in stark
detail. Addiction has always been a key element to the story of A Star is Born
since the first time it was told, but what Cooper does is give a
hard-edged look at it. We never feel like the movie is going to cop
out, or look for unrealistic answers, and the screenplay written by
Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters never once disappoints us. A Star is Born is certainly familiar, even if you haven't seen
the earlier incarnations of it, but when the film contains these
performances and this level of emotion, that tends to be the last thing
on your mind.
BLACK PANTHER - This was the first great entertainment of 2018, and in my mind, is the best
Marvel movie to come out in a while. Yes, the movie has all the action
and stunts you would expect, but it really has so much more on its
mind. It's a vibrant film, full of life, and with a large cast of
characters who are all wonderfully developed and never once seem
shortchanged or pushed to the background. It also has a wonderful
setting that we haven't seen in the movies before. Not only that, it
achieves what few superhero movies have been able to do, by giving us
both a memorable hero and villain, and allows us to be engaged in their
struggle. This is a movie that fires on all cylinders. It is these wonderful characters and their expertly written and developed relationships that make Black Panther
one of the strongest entries in the expanding cinematic universe of
Marvel Comics. Yes, the movie can be thrilling in its action, but it is
just as thrilling because we really and truly care about everyone who
inhabits the story. Nobody here is unimportant, and the movie would be
lesser if one character was removed. There are no moments here that
feel like padding or filler, and nothing feels out of place or
unnecessary. This is a script that has clearly been thought out, and
has been brought before the cameras by an expert team. The
performances, the visuals, the cinematography, and even the music score
all create a complete experience. Most importantly, the movie does not
go flat in its final moments. The big "epic" battle sequence is grand,
not chaotic. And the final standoff between the Black Panther and the
main villain is built from much grander stakes than you would expect,
and is appropriately thrilling instead of anticlimactic. This is probably the most ambitious project to come out of Marvel
Studios. While it follows the basic template of a superhero story, it
breaks the traditional mold in so many ways. It not only creates a
great heroic character that we want to see in many sequels, but it gives
him an entire world and a rich supporting cast that we want to see more
of as well. A lot of superhero introduction films are content to just
give us a memorable hero. Black Panther does so much more. It's
intelligent, a hell of a lot of fun, brilliantly planned out, and just
an all around superb entertainment.
THE FAVOURITE - Here is one of the better films of 2018's list of Oscar nominees. From its
three leading lady performances, to the screenplay which perfectly
balances tragedy with razor-sharp comedy. Olivia Colman has rightfully earned
just about every award recognition in the book for her portrayal of
Queen Anne, who ruled England during the 18th century, mostly from her
bed. Stricken with gout, and surrounding herself with 17 rabbits to
replace the 17 children that she has birthed and lost by this point,
Colman finds both the tragedy and the humor in her portrayal, and it is
something to witness. Not to be outdone in the acting category are Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, both sensational as the two women scheming against one another to get the Queen's favor. The Favourite has divided many viewers, and I can see why. This
is an extremely dark and vengeful story about these two women doing
horrible things to one another in order to gain the Queen's trust. And
yet, the movie never loses its sense of humor, nor does it go into such
levels of viciousness that I was turned off. It is the performances of
Colman, Weisz and Stone that completely carry the film. This is also not your conventional costume drama. Director Yorgos Lanthimos is
not exactly known for being a conventional filmmaker, and while this is
probably the closest he has ever come to doing a conventional movie
that can be pigeonholed into a genre, he finds ways to throw in his
trademark humor, and some other oddball choices. But beyond these original choices, he has also made an absolutely
gorgeous film, one of the better looking ones I've seen recently. From
the costume design by Sandy Powell, to the sets by Fiona Crombie, this
is a movie that can grab your attention simply with its sumptuous design
in just about every category. Fortunately, there's a great script,
some amazing performances, and an overall high energy within the visual
trappings. This is a movie that manages to be shocking, hilarious, sad, thoughtful
and heartfelt at various times throughout. This is a movie that can go
in multiple directions, but due to the steady direction and the
incredible cast, I never felt lost. This is just a wonderfully structured
ISLE OF DOGS - Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs was hands down the boldest and most
polarizing animated film of the year. Yes, the movie
is a visual feast with its gorgeous and fluid stop motion art style.
And like a lot of Anderson's films, the deadpan humor and wordplay is
quite strong. But, the movie also has a lot on its mind, including a
political undercurrent that will resonate with adult audiences. In fact, the movie seems to be tailored almost exclusively for adult
audiences. Despite the cast of talking dogs, the film contains a lot of
Anderson's trademark dark humor. It also has his trademark
whimsy and light tone, which, combined with the stop motion animation,
gives the film an unearthly and almost dream-like quality. Anderson and
his team of co-writers have crafted a simple but emotional story that is
filled with hard truths, honest sentiments, and an overall sense of
wonder that we seldom get in movies. It's the kind of movie where the
imaginative visuals and the world it's set in draw you in, and then you
find yourself captivated by not just the look, but also the tone and the
dialogue. This is a movie that sucks you in little by little, until
you are completely under its spell. While the simple plot that celebrates the love between humans and
canines makes up the main heart of the story, it is also used as a
launching point for a variety of subplots which cover a wide range of
themes, such as political corruption and using fear to rally voters, a
minority rising up and standing against the establishment, and even a
touch of satire on technology.. The movie
never seems overly busy, despite its tackling of multiple themes, and
its large cast of characters. Not only is Isle of Dogs visually captivating, but it is also
enriching and rewarding. It's seldom that we get an animated feature
with a love for dialogue, but perhaps it's not surprising here, since
Anderson has always been a master at wordplay. This is a great little
film, worthy of a repeat viewing not just to catch all the visual
touches and gags that you missed, but to also appreciate the work that
went into what these puppets and model figures are saying.
MIRAI - What a joy this movie is. Like the best animated family films, Mirai
mixes truth and honesty with flights of fantasy that will appeal to
both children and adults. This is a movie that is filled with wonder,
but at the same time, it is achingly realistic as it looks at the
agonies of both young childhood and parenthood. The movie is about the
bond of family, and learning your place within it, but it mixes this
with a playful sense of humor, a lot of visual wonder, and more emotion
than any other animated release this year. Writer-director Mamoru Hosoda has created a film that mixes complex themes and ideas with family
entertainment. This, combined with the film's richly detailed and very
human character designs, is what makes the film so poignant. It's also a
marvel to look at the film's largely hand-drawn backgrounds and
settings. In an interview, Hosoda also talks about how hand-drawn
art is becoming lost in most recent animated films. Mirai is a
testament not just to his gifts as a storyteller, but also to the
beauty of hand-drawn animation, and why it must survive. Mirai is a film that is all at once human and fantastic. The
movie spends enough time in both the real world and the world of
imagination of its young child hero that we are wrapped in by both sides of the story equally.
Just as emotionally involving as the story are the images, which have
been lovingly crafted by Hosoda and his team. There is not a single
scene here that feels thrown together, or flat. Each scene has been
painstakingly crafted, from the backyard where many of Kun's fantastic
adventures and encounters begin, to a modern day train station that
becomes a surreal and cold nightmare during the film's climax. The
film's mix of human emotion, imagination and artistic beauty blends
together to create that rare kind of family film that you truly want to
treasure while you are watching it.
ROMA - Here is a film I did not review, as I try to review only films I see at the theater, and this is currently only found on Netflix. And yet, its dreamlike, nostalgic atmosphere and tremendous performances make it an unforgettable experience. Inspired by writer-director Alfonso Cuarón's reminiscences from
childhood and dedicated to the real-life nanny, Liboria "Libo"
Rodríguez, who helped to raise him, it is the simple story of a live-in maid and housekeeper named Cleo (first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, giving an astonishing performance) and her relationship to the family she works for while living in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970. The movie is made up of small story threads that weave together to create a beautiful narrative of family, love and loss as Cleo works her way through various joys and personal heartaches. This is Cuarón's most personal and intimate film, holding an almost improvised tone. It is a small movie of enormous power and emotion, and the luminous 65mm black-and-white photography only helps with the nostalgic and simple tone that the film is trying to create. This is a gem of a film, and it's a shame that it's not being played in many theaters outside of film festivals. This is a poetic film that is not soon to be forgotten after you watch it.
SEARCHING - This is not the first thriller to be built around the gimmick that the entire
film takes place on line via cameras, texts and video chats. However, this is easily the best attempt at the stylized approach we
have had. First-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty (a former employee of
Google) has managed to use the limitations of filming solely on
smartphones, browser windows and security cam footage, and has created
not just an enthralling film, but one that is emotionally effective and
has a ton of heart behind it. John Cho delivers a powerful leading performance as David Kim, a widower
in California who grows concerned with his 15-year-old daughter Margot
(Michelle La) does not come home or return his texts. The last time he
heard from her was when she tried to contact him in the middle of the
night, but he was sleeping and missed her calls. Now, there's total
silence, and none of her friends have seen her at school or at her usual
hang outs. As the mystery grows into a Missing Persons investigation, the tension and mystery grows. Searching occasionally leaves the computer screen to show us
media reports as the search for the missing teen becomes major news. We
also get to see the effect the case has on the viral community, as her
classmates leave passionate and forced tribute videos, and haters and
trolls start hounding David on line, accusing him of being responsible
for his daughter's disappearance. All of this creates a surprisingly
compelling narrative, despite the limited storytelling technique of
mostly using video chats and texts to drive the action. We are involved
in the characters, and in the mystery itself. This is just an extremely well thought out film, and one that pays off in just about every way.
SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER VERSE - In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we get the ultimate argument as to why the character should have been animated
all along. With the freedom of movement we see in this film, not only
can the titular hero do anything a spider can, but he does so with with a
tone that is consistently inventive and alive. This movie sets itself
apart from the handful of other comic book movies we get every year by
being inventive in its visuals, storytelling, and truly using the art
form to create images we have never seen, and could not be achieved in
one of the live action Spidey movies. But it's not just on the surface that this movie works. Behind the
adventure, comedy and movement, there is substance underneath. The
movie asks what does it really mean to be Spider-Man? Can anyone do
it? What does he mean to the people he protects? Like the best
superhero films, this is not all flashy spectacle and funny quips. This
can be a deeply moving film at times. It's also just a lot of fun. It
has scenes of movement that I had never dreamed of before in the
cinematic universe of the character. When I saw Spider-Man leaping,
crawling, or diving off a roof, only to catch himself with his webbing,
it's how I always imagined him moving in the comics. This is the rare blockbuster that actually gives its characters room to
grow and be emotional. We also grow to care about the various
Spider-people who inhabit the story, and their plights to return to their home dimensions.
And when it is time for the big action sequences, they are some of the
finest I have ever seen, even eclipsing some of the better live action
efforts. Even the climatic battle (usually the weakest link of a
superhero movie) manages to impress, and has an amazing amount of flow
considering how chaotic it gets. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is truly something special. It
can be enjoyed by just about anyone, even those with little knowledge
of the characters, as the movie does a great job of setting up its
complex, but fairly linear, plot. It has also become my favorite
cinematic interpretation of the character and his universe. I hope the
team behind this gets to do a lot more of these movies, but most of all,
I hope it does well enough to inspire more like it, as there are plenty
of other heroes who I would love to see get the animated big screen
treatment. To me, it just makes more sense to hire a talented voice
actor to play Batman, than to hire a big name like Ben Affleck, and hide
him behind a lot of rubber and latex.
WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR - If the current toxic political and social world that seems to thrive on cynicism and corruption has you feeling down, then Won't You Be My Neighbor,
a documentary about kid's show host Fred Rogers, may be just the movie
you need to see. It's impossible not to admire and be drawn into the
story of how this ordained minister wanted to help children make sense
of the world around them, so he created a low budget TV show that ran
for nearly 2,000 episodes from 1968 to 2001 (he passed away at age 74 in
2003), and helped children cope with topics as diverse as losing a
beloved pet, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, racism and Vietnam. Early on, we're told by someone who worked on the show that everything you could do to make a good television show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
did the opposite of it. The sets were low budget and cheap, the pace
was slow and reflective, and the host was not exactly overflowing with
TV star charisma. Fred Rogers got into the TV business, because when he
looked at children's television, all he could see was humor based
around humiliation, with characters being hit in the face with pies. He
knew that shows for kids could do so much more, and his main mission
was to connect with children and let them know that he understood them,
and could talk to them on their level without talking down to them. We don't learn much about the private life of the man, as he was
notoriously secretive about his personal and family life up to the end. What we do learn is that Fred was incredibly in tune with what was going
on in the world, and knew how to explain these difficult topics to
children. Won't You Be My Neighbor is simple and straightforward in its
structure. You won't learn any shocking truths about the man here. It
simply exists to celebrate the ideals of love, understanding and
compassion that Mr. Rogers imparted to children on a regular basis.
What insights the movie does give us is that he actually hated
television and celebrity fame, and yet used both in order to reach the
children of the world. Won't You Be My Neighbor is not just a movie with a message, but
it's also entirely compelling and completely enthralling in a quiet and
unassuming way, much the way the show was to children all of the world.
Insidious: The Last Key, Paddington 2, 12 Strong, Peter Rabbit, Annihilation, Game
Night, Love Simon, Unsane, Ready Player One, Chappaquiddick, Beirut,
Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, Avengers: Infinity War, Tully, Deadpool
2, Book Club, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Hereditary, Ocean's 8,
Incredibles 2, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Sorry to Bother You, Ant-Man
and the Wasp, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Teen Titans Go! To the
Movies, Christopher Robin, Crazy Rich Asians, BlacKkKlansman, Alpha, A
Simple Favor, White Boy Rick, Smallfoot, First Man, The Hate U Give,
Overlord, The Grinch, Instant Family, Widows, Ralph Breaks the Internet:
Wreck-It Ralph 2, Green Book, Bumblebee, Mary Poppins Returns, Vice, On
the Basis of Sex, Eighth Grade
MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTOR (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
Mahershala Ali in Green Book
Christian Bale in Vice
John Cho in Searching
Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born
Adam Driver in BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott in A Star is Born
Ben Foster in Leave No Trace
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen in Green Book
John David Washington in BlacKkKlansman
MY TOP 10 PERFORMANCES BY AN ACTRESS (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER):
Amy Adams in Vice
Yalitza Aparicioin Roma
Toni Collette in Hereditary
Olivia Colman in The Favourite
Marina de Tavira in Roma
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
Lady Gaga in A Star is Born
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
Emma Stone in The Favourite
Rachel Weisz in The Favourite
So, those are my favorites of 2018 in a nutshell! Hopefully, as we go
further into 2019, we will get many more bright moments to come in the
I'm starting to think that it's time we label a new genre in Hollywood romantic comedies, which I like to call "the Magical Head Injury Comedy". In less than a year, we will have had three examples of it, and they all seem to follow the same basic structure. They start out with a woman who is unsuccessful at work and relationships, but suddenly she gets conked on the head, and suddenly she develops some kind of magical ability or magical side effect which gives her the ability to get ahead. The woman enjoys this for a while, but she eventually becomes conceited or selfish. She begins to lose her trusted girlfriends, it threatens her relationship with her new man, and the woman eventually learns that she does not need the abilities that the Magical Head Injury have granted her, and that she was wonderful the way she was before.
We saw this plot back in April of last year in I Feel Pretty, where Amy Schumer got knocked on the head, and suddenly saw herself as beautiful, instead of the average woman she was. We'll be seeing it again next weekend in Isn't It Romantic, where Rebel Wilson hits her head, and suddenly finds herself in a cliched romantic comedy setting. (I have not seen it, but I assume it will somewhat follow the structure I listed above. Hopefully it surprises me, or at least is funny and charming enough to work.) This weekend, we have What Men Want, which features Taraji P. Henson in a gender-flipped reworking of the 2000 Mel Gibson comedy, What Women Want. That was the movie where Gibson played a chauvinistic pig who gained the ability to hear what women were thinking, and could finally realize what they thought of him. With Henson in the lead, gaining the ability to hear what men are thinking, she comes across as a comedic live wire, with energy and spirit to burn. Unfortunately, the movie itself is stalled almost right from the beginning, and just isn't that funny.
Henson plays Ali Davis, a tough-as-nails Atlanta sports agent who has been trying to make it in a mostly male-dominated profession for several years. She's gone pretty far, and is respected by many of her peers, but then her pig-headed boss (Brian Bosworth) passes her over for the big promotion of being a partner in the company, which she thought she was going to get, and gives it to another guy. Ali is the hard-drinking, hard-living type who browbeats her gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brenner), has sex with multiple men like she is keeping score, and usually neglects her three best girlfriends. It is those friends who end up taking her to a bizarre psychic named Sister (Erykah Badu, giving a go-for-broke performance), who has Ali drink some funky herbal tea. It is a combination of the tea, plus Ali falling and knocking herself on the head while she's out partying afterward, that suddenly gifts her with the ability to hear what any man is thinking.
Unfortunately, director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) and the three credited screenwriters never go as far as they should with this idea. According to this movie, the deepest thing that men ever think about is stuff like "I would tap that", or "Micheal Keaton was the best Batman". It keeps on promising big revelations and insights into the male psyche, but it simply never delivers, and instead goes for tired old gags. It recycles almost the exact same kind of gags from an almost 20-year-old movie, and doesn't bother to freshen them up for today's current climate of men and women in the workforce. So, we have Henson in the lead role, giving everything she has, and basically powering through the entire movie like a force of nature. Meanwhile, the movie itself gives off a much more lethargic vibe that never connects with her performance, creating an imbalance from which the film never overcomes.
There are two main plots that the film revolves around. One is Ali trying to sign a rising young basketball star named Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), which is easier said than done since his dominating father (Tracy Morgan) pretty much controls every aspect of his son's career, and is not interested in a female agent, or an agent who doesn't have a family, since family is everything to him. Ali uses her new ability to hear men's thoughts to win the dad's trust, and hopefully sign over Jamal, which would help her make partner. Again, there's a lot of wasted potential here at satirizing the sports world. When the corporate bozos at her sports agency show Jamal a potential commercial they have thrown together to help advertise him, the commercial is so over the top in its awfulness, it's not funny. I understand, the point is that it's supposed to be over the top and terrible, but it's overkill. There's no way anyone would think it was a good idea, or that it could be played on television in this day and age. The movie should have been clever in poking fun at how sports celebrities are advertised and marketed, and instead the movie goes to such an extreme that it overshoots.
The other main plot, a romantic subplot concerning a widowed single dad named Will (Aldis Hodge) who teaches Ali what a relationship can be beyond sex, is not that interesting either. Sure, Henson and Hodge have some chemistry up on the screen, but their relationship has been written in such a safe and generic way that they never excite. Will is simply there to throw a cute kid into the mix with his young son, and adds little else. That's really this movie's whole problem. It's safe, sanitized, and crowd-pleasing. I thought that since the film was rated-R, it would at least try to tackle some serious or tricky issues about men and women in our current culture. Turns out the rating is only for a lot of "F-bombs" thrown into the dialogue, and a few sex scenes that don't even raise the heat of the audience. Take those away, and this could have been your garden variety PG-13 romantic comedy that leaves your mind as soon as you walk out of the theater.
There is one moment in What Men Want that hints at what the movie could have been. It's a scene late in the film, where Henson's boss stops short of firing her because he's worried about what the "Me Too" movement would think. This scene works, because it seems truthful and it's actually kind of stinging. It shows the direction that the screenplay should have gone, instead of relying on old cliches. Overall, Henson is game, but the movie is afraid to join her and go all the way.
It's expected by now that the early winter months would bring us a Liam Neeson revenge thriller, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Cold Pursuit is business as usual. Adapting from his own 2014 Norwegian film, In Order of Disappearance, director Hans Petter Moland has given us a film that is a lot more humorous and fun than you might be expecting. This is a tongue-in-cheek thriller that never really takes itself all that seriously, and it's probably better for it.
This time around, Neeson plays Nels Coxman, a straight-laced and silent husband and family man who runs a snow plow business in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. Nels is a stoic man, loved by his wife (Laura Dern, given little to do) and teenage son (Neeson's real life son, Micheál Richardson). He's also loved by his town, as he's just been awarded Citizen of the Year. While Nels is accepting the award, tragedy strikes elsewhere, as his son is discovered by the police dead of a heroin overdose. This not only creates a rift between Nels and his wife that possibly can never be healed (she blames him for not knowing his own son), it turns him suicidal. That depression turns to rage, however, when he finds out that his son's death was staged to cover up the murderous actions of a Denver-based drug syndicate.
Now Nels wants revenge against his son's killers, and he starts tracking down and bumping off the members of the syndicate one-by-one. He brutally beats them, then wraps their body in chicken wire, and throws them down the falls so that the fish will eat their bodies, and their corpses will not float to the surface. (A trick he learned from reading crime novels.) This gets the attention of the syndicate's leader, the highly strung drug lord who goes by the name "Viking" (Tom Bateman), who is a murdering S.O.B., but not so evil that he won't let his own young kid (Nicholas Holmes) eat junk food. When some of his goons try to give his son a cookie, he chews them out, and another thug tries to give the kid sugar cereal when the boss isn't looking. He's just trying to raise a healthy kid, while at the same time trying to uncover who's bumping off some of his low level hoods. He also has an ex-wife to deal with, who is trying to get him more involved in their kid's school by signing him up for different events.
Cold Pursuit is clearly a movie having a lot of fun with itself, and it's just as much fun to watch. This is a fast-paced film that doesn't exactly break any new ground, nor does it feature any great performances. But, it does know how to give the audience a good time. It mixes strong action with equally strong offbeat humor. These are not the sort of people you expect to see at the center of an action thriller, and the movie revels in that fact. Even Nels is not your standard action role from Neeson, as he does not possess a very particular set of skills. He's new to this revenge game, and the first time he tries to murder someone, it takes him a few tries before the thug is finally dead. There are even moments when Neeson almost seems to be poking fun at the kinds of characters he usually plays in these kind of movies. The humor is fairly subtle, however, and sometimes laugh out loud funny.
Neeson is not the only one having fun here. There are some strong and often funny supporting roles on display, especially the always-welcome William Forsythe, who is wonderful in his small role as Nels' black sheep brother who has past connections to the criminal underworld, and helps Nels find his way in his quest for revenge. He gets at least one big laugh in almost every scene he's in. I also liked the two local cops played by Emmy Rossum and John Doman. They have a wonderful deadpan back and forth whenever they're on camera, and the screenplay does a great job of playing off her relative inexperience, and his general "seen it all" attitude. Less you think the movie is all fun, the action and scenes of violence are appropriately brutal and well-shot. Moland almost seems to be going for a Tarantino vibe, mixing strong violence with clever humor. And while the movie never quite reaches the top tier of that level, it's still something to be admired.
Cold Pursuit does what it needs to succeed, but it also goes a little bit further by adding a strong sense of dark humor. People will come to see Liam Neeson playing a regular guy who is very good at taking justice into his own hands, and they definitely get that. But they will get a movie that is a little bit more knowing and wittier than you might expect. When it comes to escapism entertainment like this, there's little else you could ask for.
I can honestly say that 2014's The Lego Movie stands as one of my favorite Hollywood animated films of the decade. It was that rare blockbuster that actually exceeded expectations, and ended up being much smarter and flat-out hilarious than it had any right to be, considering it was a feature length toy commercial. Walking into The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, I knew that there was no way it could capture the imagination and surprise of the original, and I was right. But it still manages to be a lot of fun. Maybe a bit messier and not as well thought out, but still fun.
Most of the cast and memorable characters from the original are back here, although I sorely missed my favorite character from before, the memorable Good Cop/Bad Cop, who does not get to play a role in this story. The same creative minds behind the first, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are also back, although they're just credited to the screenplay this time around, with Mike Mitchell (Trolls) in the director's chair. The movie also has as many cameos and as much pop culture knowledge as before. The only thing holding this movie back is the lack of surprise. We didn't know what to expect walking in last time, but we do this time. Don't get me wrong, the movie lives up to our expectations. It's just not quite as stunning or as surprisingly human and emotional as before. This is an effective and entertaining movie, but it doesn't feel as special as before. It was bound to happen with a sequel to a movie that seemed so daring for an animated family film.
The film picks up at the exact moment the last one left off, with the Lego citizens of Bricksburg being attacked by the cute but aggressive invaders of Lego Duplo, who have come from another world to seemingly lay siege to their fair city. In the five years since, the town has become an apocalyptic wasteland, with all of the characters from before like Lucy/WyldStyle (voice by Elizabeth Banks), the adorable Unikitty (Alison Brie), and even Lego Batman (Will Arnett) turning into battle-hardened warriors who give brooding narrations and monologues about how bleak their existence has become. The only one unaffected by the apocalypse is the ever-optimistic Emmett (Chris Pratt), who still believes that everything is awesome in the face of impending doom. But when Emmett's friends are kidnapped by a mysterious alien visitor who takes them to the far-off and glitter-filled string of planets known as the Systar System to meet the shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), Emmett will have to embrace his inner loner hero in order to save them all, and possibly his world.
The Lego Movie 2 matches a lot of the wit of the first, but it lacks the grand scope. The first movie felt like an epic as it journeyed across multiple Lego worlds and landscapes. This time around, the settings are surprisingly limited, and just don't feel as exciting as before. A lot of the adventure is set in outer space, and the many planets that make up the Systar System, but I kind of miss the various worlds based on play sets build around Westerns or exotic lands. What keeps things interesting is how the movie again manages to sneak in a lot of clever parody elements. I especially liked the character of Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Chirs Pratt), a space jockey who flies through the stars with a crew made up entirely of velociraptors (whose dialogue is hilariously expressed through subtitles), and who seems to be one giant combination of all of Pratt's roles in recent blockbusters.
Also like before, the movie takes great pleasure in being self aware in the best way possible. The end credits are accompanied by a very funny song about how great credits are. At one point, Lego Batman sings another song that basically spoofs the entire film saga of the Dark Knight, where the jokes and references fly so fast, it might require repeated viewings. There are cameos to watch out for (both voice actor and characters from various franchises), as well as both visual and verbal humor that you might not catch. The only downside is not all of jokes hit as much as before. There's a particularly annoying running gag about a banana that is constantly slipping on itself that the movie keeps on falling back on that is just not funny, and becomes even less so the sixth or seventh time the movie falls back on it. Still, even if not everything works, there are enough bright spots to make it worth watching once.
But that also kind of adds to my slight disappointment. I may watch this once more just to catch the little things I missed, but I don't think it will require as many viewings as the first did for me. This is a movie that works, but not everything comes together as beautifully as before. Maybe it was inevitable. Whatever the case, the movie is still worth the time of anyone who liked what came before, and that's enough.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen