REVIEW: “Isle of Dogs”

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There isn’t much middle ground when it comes to Wes Anderson movies. As is often the case, his films either work for you or they don’t. They definitely work for me. My wife, not as much. But it’s not because she doesn’t try. I’m pretty sure I’ve shown her every Anderson flick and we usually have some pretty good discussions after each viewing. Deep down I like to think she actually has an untapped appreciation.

But we’ll leave that for another time. Wes Anderson movies are special because without fail they always feel refreshingly different from anything else in theaters. His latest film is no different. From the very first frame of “Isle of Dogs” we know we are watching an Anderson picture. The stop-motion animation (ala 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), the slightly offbeat music, and the almost instant deadpan humor are unquestionably Andersonian. It instantly fits right into his spectacular comic movie catalog. So why am I hesitant to fully embrace this film in the same way I have his others?

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Now don’t get me wrong, “Isle of Dogs” is another fascinating Anderson experience that (like most of his films) begs for multiple viewings to fully appreciate the richness of the visual and thematic language. Once again we find the filmmaker creating and inhabiting another wacky quasi-real place within his own wacky quasi-universe. Japanese culture lends its influence to Anderson’s fictional city of Megasaki City but that’s as far as the similarities go. Anderson doesn’t work within the real world. He only borrows from it and speaks to elements of it.

In “Isle of Dogs” the conniving cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) runs a dystopian not-to-distant-future Japan with an iron fist. Exploiting a dog flu virus outbreak, the authoritarian mayor banishes the entire dog population to Trash Island. Among the dogs is Spots (Live Schreiber), the best buddy to the mayor’s nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). But Atari will have none of it. He sneaks away and flies a rickety mini-plane to Trash Island to find his canine companion.

After crash landing Atari is taken in by an eccentric pack of pups led by the reluctant Chief (Bryan Cranston). The rest of the group is voiced by a fun assortment of actors including Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum as the scene-stealing gossip of the group. They venture across Trash Island to find Spots while back home a youth protest against the Mayor’s doggie decrees is led by a foreign exchange student named Tracy (Greta Gerwig), one of many outcasts found throughout the story.

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As the movie moves forward you can’t help but be smitten by the superb animation and art direction. The vivid detail in both the backgrounds and the characters (both human and hairy) are quite stunning. And so often it’s the gorgeous yet quirky visuals that spur some of the film’s bigger laughs. But normally it’s Anderson’s dry, offbeat, deadpan humor, cleverly balanced throughout his movies, that carry them. Here it isn’t nearly as pronounced. In fact, in the final act it’s fairly sparse. And as the pieces all-too-neatly fall into place, I found myself not knowing how to feel about the ending.

In some ways how Anderson tells his story is more fascinating that the story itself. “Isle of Dogs” is a technical delight both visually and in its use of sound. The huge and talented cast offer up superb voice work and they all meld seamlessly into Anderson’s handsomely idiosyncratic world. It’s another reminder that Wes Anderson is a meticulous master of his craft. Yet from a story standpoint I can’t help but feel ever so slightly conflicted. And whether looking at it as a message piece soaked in political metaphors or simply as a story about a boy and his dog, I still left with the same uncertainties. Maybe I just need to give it another view. Or maybe I’m just too much of a cat person.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Icarus”

ICARUS POSTERWhen watching Bryan Fogel’s now Oscar-nominated “Icarus” I couldn’t help but think of Morgan Sperlock’s “Super Size Me” but with performance-enhancing drugs replacing McDonalds. At least that’s how it starts. But the further it goes Fogel’s documentary (originally meant to show the effects of PEDs) inadvertently becomes an stunning exposé on how the recent Russian doping scandal was brought to light.

Filmmaker, playwright, and cycling enthusiast Bryan Fogel set out to show how PEDs enhance athletic performance through experimentation. But he also aimed to see if he cover his usage and pass an anti-doping test. Over several months he injected himself with a series of steroids and growth hormones and documented the results.

Fogel’s experiment was first overseen by Don Catlin who founded the first anti-doping lab in the United States. But Caitlin grew uncomfortable with how it might effect his reputation so he connected Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s national antidoping laboratory. Grigory walks Fogel through a intensive PED regiment and reveals his process for avoiding a positive drug test.

Through their experiment the two men develop a close friendship and Grigory begins sharing the details and inner workings of Russia’s elaborate state-ran doping scheme. He unveils startling information about the Russian Olympic teams and the involvement of the Russian government. Fogel quickly learns he has stubbled into something far more significant and potentially earth-shattering than his original subject.

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As “Icarus” moves forward it makes a substantial shift from fairly mundane to thoroughly riveting. The film starts slow as Fogel spends a bit too much time documenting the first stages of his steroid experiment and how it impacts his performance in the Haute Route cycling competition. But it takes an entirely different form the moment Grigory enters the picture.

Fogel comes across as genuinely overwhelmed by the flood of shocking revelation and his film does a great job conveying that nervousness and uncertainty. The sheer magnitude of the scandal and the wide-reaching impact of Grigory’s willingness to go public adds a level of intensity akin to an edge-of-your-seat spy thriller. And despite its slow start, “Icarus” sucks you into the elaborate and dangerous web of scandal that shook the international sports community to its core. At the same time it shines a bright light on the political powers who will use anyone, whether it be Grigory or the hundreds of Olympic athletes, to accomplish their will. And miraculously Fogel just happened upon it.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

2017 BlindSpot Series – “In the Mood for Love”

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With such a passionate, seductive title, “In the Mood for Love” may tempt you to believe it is something it’s not. The film’s English title is based on “I’m In the Mood for Love”, a song made famous by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole among others. But unlike the song’s alluringly romantic sentiment, the film has a much more cynical perspective – cynical yet still intensely romantic.

There’s a key line in the film where a character asks “It was so nice then, wasn’t it?” In many ways that’s the question from the start. Early on the film conveys a feeling that we are looking back in time – that we are gazing on what might have been. Technically we aren’t, but writer and director Wong Kar-wai’s crafty approach leaves us wondering. Elements of time do play into the story and the aching hearts of the two main characters intensifies the more time passes by.

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The film features popular Asian stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung. Their story begins in the crowded, changing 1962 Hong Kong. Both are stable career people. Leung plays a reporter named Chow while Cheung plays an executive’s assistant named Su. They end up moving next door in the same tight apartment building. Everything seems pretty stable except for one thing – their marriages. As it turns out their spouses are having an affair together and that discovery serves as the catalyst for their unique relationship.

Wong Kar-wai’s hypnotic story structure elegantly drifts back-and-forth between dreamy and bruising reality. There are no dream sequences – only soothing interludes in tune with the narrative’s continuity yet feeling almost otherworldly. It’s here that the camera steals the show. Scene after scene features Kar-wai’s masterful blend of lyrical and visual.

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The story moves at a deliberate but meaningful pace. Su and Chow are two bruised souls who in each other find an outlet to reckon with their pain and feelings of betrayal. They role-play in an attempt to figure out who made the first adulterous move. They rehearse the best way to confront their cheating spouses. Yet during all of their time together they are determined not to commit the same sins. Ironically it’s a misunderstanding of this pledge that proves to be their biggest hurdle to true healing and happiness.

As I mentioned “In the Mood for Love” is intensely romantic but painfully so. There is a continual aching from title screen to end credits. It’s emphasized through the film’s mesmerizing cinematography and composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s entrancing “Yumeji’s Theme”. Wong Kar-wai keeps everything moving at his pace and with his two main characters as the focus. We never once see the faces of the adulterers. We see their backs and hear their voices but that’s it. So many movies like to put the cheaters in the spotlight. This film is much more interested in the real people left in their wake.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Infernal Affairs”

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Back in 2006 Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” grabbed a lot of attention. It received universal acclaim and would go on to win four Oscars including Best Picture. For many it also brought attention to the 2002 Hong Kong crime drama “Infernal Affairs” – the direct inspiration for Scorsese’s “The Departed”. Scorsese would later say “Infernal Affairs” was an example of why he loved Hong Kong cinema.

“Infernal Affairs” was a critical and box office hit when first released winning seven of its sixteen Hong Kong Film Awards nominations. Over time it has gained a global appreciation and has influenced a number of prominent filmmakers. Much of its impact is due to a riveting script featuring two rich, intersecting storylines and a near flawless pacing. Once it starts it keeps you locked in for the duration.

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Following the same timeline a young police cadet is sent to infiltrate a local triad while a young gang member is sent to infiltrate the Hong Kong police department. Ten years pass and both men climb the ranks to higher and more trusted positions. Chen (Tony Leung) is a top dog to triad boss Sam (Eric Tsang) but has grown tired of undercover cop life. Lau (Andy Lau) has become Sam’s top insider within the police department. As both feed more information to their bosses it becomes evident to each they have a mole that needs exterminated.

What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse as one tries to root out the other. The Alan Mak and Felix Chong screenplay impressively weaves together its two narrative threads while steadily building towards its inevitable explosive conclusion. And while action is a component of their story, Mak and Chong are much more interested in moral dilemmas and inner conflicts. They deal personally with themes of identity, loyalty, and suffering – specifically a continued state of suffering.

You could say suffering is the main theme. The film begins and ends with two Buddhist verses which speak of a “continuous hell” and the actual Chinese movie title is translated “The Unceasing Path”. Chen and Lau are trapped in their own unending personal hells with no discernible escapes. It’s a concept the movie explores to great effect and all within a riveting, tightly-wound crime thriller.

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The casting of charismatic leads Tony Leung and Andy Lau energizes the movie even more. Both give focused, understated performances that earned them critical acclaim. But that’s no surprise. By that time both actors were immensely popular and have since been established as two of Hong Kong’s most successful and bankable movie stars. They have very little screentime together but the scenes they do eventually share serves as a most satisfying payoff.

“Infernal Affairs” is recognized by many as one of the signature Hong Kong movies of its era. It’s easy to see why. It features a highly original crime/police story brimming with drama and tension. The small bursts of action we get are thrilling and the film is shot with an impeccable attention to tone. But the characters are the story’s lifeblood and everything the movie puts around them reveals more of the struggle within them. It’s an unexpected ingredient that separates the movie from the bulk of action movie fodder.

VERDICT 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Independence Day: Resurgence”

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It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since the release of “Independence Day”. I still remember that summer of 1996. ID4 was a big deal. A fantastic marketing campaign stirred up a ton of interest and when the film was finally released audiences weren’t disappointed. ID4 was a big, silly, science fiction romp that essentially redefined the summer blockbuster. It also represented a huge leap forward in CGI technology and featured some of the most memorable scenes ever created of movie mass destruction. It opened the gates for a slew of other disaster movies that would follow and its eventual sequel some twenty years later.

ID4 worked simply because it was fun. The pure spectacle was something to behold and unlike anything of that time. Most importantly it embraced its silliness and its cheesiness was part of its charm. Now flash-forward to “Independence Day: Resurgence”, a remarkably dull sequel devoid of any of its predecessors charms. Director Roland Emmerich returns along with co-writer and co-producer Dean Devlin. Both tapped into something good back in 1996, but their follow-up is a testament to how far blockbusters have fallen in terms of quality and ambition.

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“Resurgence” spends a lot of time hearkening back to the first movie and milking that connection for all it can. Minus a few fun bits of nostalgia, it doesn’t do much to help. Perhaps twenty years is too long ago. Maybe people have simply forgotten these characters. Personally speaking I had no hankering for a sequel. But problems like that can be squashed if you have good story to tell. “Resurgence” has nothing new to say and its redundancy along with a complete lack of inspiration makes it pretty tough to endure.

The cliché-riddled story is pretty basic. A now unified earth has created a global defense force to protect us from any potential alien attack. How do you think that worked? A 3,000 mile-wide alien mothership (that’s stupid in itself) crashes through our atmosphere and attaches itself to earth in order to harvest our planet’s core. Thankfully we have a team of the best fighter pilots, scientists, and ex-presidents to put up a resistance. None of them are the slightest bit interesting, but they do put up a resistance.

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It’s hard to say what we get more of, scenes of CGI or horrible lines of dialogue. It’s a close race. And of course we get the obligatory destruction of cities and the killing of millions of faceless people (poor London…isn’t it always London?). Sure, some of the visual effects look really nice and that’s where a bulk of its bloated $165 million budget goes. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times by now and with nothing in the story worth clinging to, the effects ring hollow.

Speaking of hollow look no further than the characters and the performances. It may be a bit unfair to slam the cast when the material is this bad. There is line after line of cringe-worthy dialogue and nearly every character is firmly rooted in one stereotype or another. The cheesiness isn’t charming because the humor is so vapid and not a single relationship feels authentic.

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Then you get to the actors none of whom seem completely convinced of what they’re doing. Liam Hemsworth plays a poor man’s Maverick from “Top Gun”. Jessie Usher is shockingly bad as the fighter pilot son of Will Smith’s character from the first film (Smith wisely said “no thanks” to this one). Even the always enjoyable Jeff Golblum is handcuffed by the shoddy script. Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner, and Judd Hirsch also return for a paycheck while none of the newly added twenty-somethings offer even a hint of fresh energy.

“Resurgence” flounders out of the gate, never shows an ability to build suspense, and offers up some of the most uninteresting characters I’ve seen in a while. Its CGI looks good but over time slams against your senses like a wrecking-ball. Maybe if this film went further into the “Sharknado” vein of intentional goofiness and absurdity it could have worked. As it is, “Resurgence” bored me and left me wondering if this was the best they could come up with after twenty years?

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars

REVIEW: “The Innkeepers”

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Ti West followed up his eye-opening “The House of the Devil” with another foray into the horror genre. “The Innkeepers” follows in its predecessor’s footsteps by taking familiar horror movie  ideas and freshening them up. It has the same appreciation for the genre that was so evident in “House” while also defining a new set of boundaries for itself.

While making “The House of the Devil” Ti West stayed at the Yankee Peddler Inn in Torrington, Connecticut. During his stay he was inspired to make “The Innkeepers”. The 52 room classic colonial styled inn (with its own rumors of paranormal activity) was the perfect setting for West’s old-fashioned ghost story. And from the opening credits the inn is established as one of the film’s most intriguing characters.

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As the story goes the Yankee Peddler Inn is a few days away from closing its doors. The last of the staff members are Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) who also moonlight as ghost hunter wannabes. The two are fascinated with the inn’s rumored haunted past and since there is little else to do they spend their uneventful hours looking to prove the stories true. The only other people in the inn are a mother and her two children and a former actress turned psychic (played by Kelly McGillis).

“The Innkeepers” is the epitome of slow-burning. But where “House” used its slower pacing to build tension, this film doesn’t. At least not in a steady sustained way. That proves to be a hurdle the movie can’t cleanly clear. After an interesting setup the story parks itself and then barely creeps to its intense climax. Deliberate pacing isn’t a bad thing especially when you’re giving audiences l something to cling to or embrace. “The Innkeepers” struggle to supply that.

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But while a chunk of the film meanders a bit, it isn’t a complete slog. Claire and Luke are fun characters even if their conversations often go nowhere. There are also a handful of scenes that are pretty tense. They do a good job of building anticipation which is why I wanted more out of them. And I have to mention the inn itself and the way West and cinematographer Eliot Rockett shoot it. Each frame is filled with character and atmosphere and once things finally ratchet up the inn’s presence is amplified even more.

“The Innkeepers” was filmed on a shoestring budget. In order to save money West had the cast and crew both shoot and stay in the actual Yankee Peddler Inn – a decision that had its positives and negatives. It’s an interesting side story for a film loaded with promise but shackled by a script that’s just a tad too lean. There are several gaps where absolutely nothing of interest takes place which is frustrating considering there are frightening moments and several other things the film does well.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars