Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

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Good boys?: American Empirical Pictures/Indian Paintbrush

ISLE OF DOGS…I…love…dogs. I only just got that. Anyway, I have a confession: I’m a cat person. I value their independence, their intelligence and their lack of need to be subservient to us. Anyway, while I don’t particularly like dogs I see all the joy they bring so many, many including, presumably, Wes Anderson. Anderson’s second animated film certainly feels more consistent in tone than FANTASTIC MR FOX and takes his obsessive, almost OCD visuals to a new level.

In future Japan dogs have been outlawed and sent to a trash island to prevent the spread of a deadly canine flu. When an eight year-old boy (Koyu Rankin) arrives on the island looking for his lost dog, a pack of alpha males nominally lead by Chief (Bryan Cranston) take him in and help in on his quest, while on the mainland the cat-loving, canine-ist regime plots to keep man’s best friend out once and for all.

While I understand the criticisms of cultural appropriation, I see it more as an affectionate tourist’s take on Japan. It’s the view of someone who’s been and had the time of their lives, and I related to this having been myself last year. I’d be interested to see how it’s received in Japan, whether it’s taken in what I think was the intended context, or whether it’s seen as a patronising. I’d also be fascinated to see how they address the language element, if in the Japanese version the dogs speak Japanese, then what do the Japanese humans speak?

Speaking of cultural appropriation in animation, how is something like KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS so different? That film uses Japanese iconography to tell an original story that feels like a traditional Japanese fable and yet all the major characters are played by Western actors. At least Isle of Dogs cast Japanese actors speaking in their native tongue and presumably requiring a different type of direction.

It’s a stunning piece of craftsmanship, meticulous on every level. The challenges of getting realistic (if stylised) canine movements out of metal armatures must have been numerous. The rendering of a heightened Japanese culture (the opening temple ceremony, Taiko drummers and screen print-style prologue, very Japanese trash items in making up the background to the dogs’ escapades) and the witty juxtaposition of behaviours (efficient, unfeeling sushi preparation matched with efficient, unfeeling surgery) help to make the film its own thing.

This is among my favourite of Cranston’s performances (and that’s saying a lot). He plays Chief as a remorseful convict, he doesn’t know why he bites, but he does. He’d prefer to keep to himself for the sake of self-preservation and the safety of others, no matter what he really wants in his heart of hearts. I also really enjoyed Edward Norton as the pack’s micromanaging mediator Rex and Jeff Goldblum reining in most of his usual verbal flourishes as local gossip and spoiled brat Duke. There’s no reason – aside from being Anderson’s good luck charm – for Bill Murray to be in this; he’s got so little to do and say. There’s even less point in Tilda Swinton who has, I think, three lines total?

There are things in Isle of Dogs that didn’t quite bowl me over, aside from the not bothered by dogs thing, but they’re difficult to put your finger on. I think like a lot of Wes Anderson films, the Wes Andersonyness is both the best and worst thing about it. It’s almost aggressively quirky and isn’t the least bit bothered if the ending, and everything that’s been set up by the story and characters up to press doesn’t fit. Overall, especially if you’ve been to Japan, it’s a hugely enjoyable comedy/sci-if/fable. If you love dogs, it’ll be unmissable. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Director and the Jedi (2018)

Whatever you thought about EPISODE VIII (and whether or not you need to get over yourself), behind-the-scenes documentary THE DIRECTOR AND THE JEDI brings chills (Frank Oz taking up the Yoda puppet again) and tears (filming Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill’s final, painfully prescient scene together) in addition to giving the work of over-worked production crew-members more time in the spotlight. Starting with Hamill’s much-publicised criticism of old Luke: “I fundamentally disagree with your concept of this character and how you use him” it shows he and Rian Johnson never really saw eye-to-eye, but at least respected each other as artists. A highlight for me was a production designer commenting “If we cant fulfill his expectations…how can I trick him into thinking he’s still getting the same thing he asked for?” Let’s be honest, they didn’t need to build Luke’s green milk-giving sea cow and ship it over to Ireland or have brave (foolish?) puppeteers dangling over a cliff edge to operate porgs. None of it (including this doc) was necessarily, but it proves the passion. SSP

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Review: Ready Player One (2018)

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Playing with friends: Warner Bros/Ambin Entertainment

A thought kept occurring to me while watching Steven Spielberg’s READY PLAYER ONE: what would a director like Paul Verhoeven have done with this material? The movie would certainly have had more bite. Spielberg isn’t prepared to step over that line into satire. As usual he focusses instead on the emotional content and the wonder of the visual, which is fine. Just fine.

In a dismal future ruled by tech corporations, the commoner’s only escape is the OASIS, a near-infinite virtual pop culture adventure. When the creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies and bequeaths his company and his creation to whoever can complete a series of knotty challenges that delve into hist past, young hopeful Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) steps forward…

Not a lot of extra thought seems to have been put into the world outside the OASIS simulation. It’s just a generic Big Business-run dystopia where the rich have become richer and the poor live in boxes. Do the underclass work? How do they live? Given the amount of time everyone spends in the virtual plane, has the OASIS become the basis of the world economy? We see pizza delivery by drone and the police turn up at the end so presumably some people not in the tech industry still  have regular jobs. All these questions and more will remain unanswered, because this is (admittedly appealing) surface-level world-building only.

I would have liked to have taken a deeper dive into why players pick the avatars that they do, why some play as themselves with different hair and/or brandishing a famous piece of pop culture ephemera and others completely reinvent themselves. At one point one of the lead character avatars changes to reflect self-acceptance, but there’s certainly more room to run with this idea and enrich the characters. The characters in general seem like placeholders and don’t really connect despite some of the cast’s best efforts (Olivia Cooke and Rylance stand out).

Little to no critique of the film industry is in evidence (Spielberg doesn’t crap where he eats) but mostly it’s about how the games industry is being corrupted. Sorrento’s spitballing of ideas to make his games more profitable at players’ expense basically summarises everything wrong with AAA games publishers’ business practices today.

Pop culture references are a little laboured at first, but by the time a key (and poignant, given Spielberg’s relationships) film sequence is recreated they become far more satisfying. The film they choose for this set piece is surprising, and pushes the boundaries of 12A certification to the extent I worried a little about how well the younger audience members at my screening would be sleeping that night.

The “dump the whole toy box on the floor” fun of the finale gave me the same beaming grin, for the same reasons, as THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE. There is at times a but too much visual information on screen at once to process, which may be intentional, the first reveal of the OASIS is probably supposed to be overwhelming to the senses, the whole thing designed to be something to be rewatched time and time again to play nerd culture bingo (or a killer drinking game). I’d like to think I got 80% of the references that I saw, and Warner Bros have some great property to draw on, with Spielberg calling in favours elsewhere to fill out the background characters. It seems like they desperately wanted Disney/Lucasfilm to let them borrow one of their icons (STAR WARS is a glaring omission in Halladay’s obsessions), but there is more than enough American and Japanese cross-over pop culture to populate this world as it is.

Ready Player One isn’t top-tier Spielberg, but there’s plenty to enjoy. It’s not deep, it’s not complex, but it presents its vibrant pop culture cornucopia in an appealing way, a way which is a lot more compelling if you stop over-analysing it. Not the most nourishing of cinematic meals, but a very tasty one nonetheless. SSP

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Review: Annihilation (2018)

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Into the unknown…: DNA Films/Paramount Pictures/Scott Rudin Productions

Fear not, viewers outside North America, despite reaching us through Netflix ANNIHILATION is not another straight-to-streaming stinker. In fact, Alex Garland’s second film as director is a thought provoking, odd and uniquely beautiful beast.

A military-science expedition into a quarantined area of wilderness causes each member of the expeditionary team to question their sanity, perception and the very laws that hold the universe together. Academic and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) volunteers for the mission following the sudden reappearance of her missing husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in a critical state of health, but everyone has their reasons for heading into the “Shimmer”.

Early on there’s a striking shot of Lena and Kane reconnecting after a long time apart, their hands meeting seen through a glass of water. The image of their fingers touching bleeds, refracts and distorts. This becomes a motif as the film progresses, often with characters being separated by some barrier or another, creating distance in their relationships and forcing us to question our, and the characters’ perception of what is going on.

It’s great to see an all-female team of scientists and security types (explained as being able to offer a different take on the mission than all the solely male teams who have failed by disappearing or dying horribly ). You usually get the token woman (Vasquez in ALIENS) or the fretting wife back home and it’s very refreshing. There’s a lot of effort to differentiate the team and flesh them all out with unique backstories and motivations, and the characters work in broad strokes, though the genius in the group (Tessa Thompson) is of course meek and wears glasses. Thankfully the rounded performances make up for any shortcomings in character writing.  I want to hear Jennifer Jason Leigh provide handy exposition in more things, because you forget how commanding a presence she can be (“Soldier-scientist – you can fight and you can learn”).

Everything in this world is refracted in some way. This is an alien invasion (sort-of – something extraterrestrial may crash to Earth) movie all about change, not destruction. Despite the gun-toting on the poster, this is not an action film. Mutated creatures attack, but the team usually have to think their way out of whatever pickle they find themselves in. Much like ARRIVAL, this story is driven much more by theme than plot, and what happens in the beginning, the middle and especially the end is left deliberately ambiguous. Be on the look out for visual cues that rhyme but don’t necessarily say a lot about what is or isn’t actually happening.

There’s an odd, sinister beauty to a lot of this, from the oily, pearlescent barrier of the Shimmer to the fauna gone a bit wrong that live within it. The image of wildflowers that have grown into human shapes and stand watch like sombre guardians and the innocuous crystal trees scattered over a beach landscape will stay with me.

The film  has one of the most captivating, perplexing finales I’ve seen since…probably Garland’s last feature. This isn’t another EX MACHINA, but a different thinky sci-fi that takes its big ideas away from the confines of a chamber piece and out into the wild. Personally, I really enjoyed the confines of Ex Machina, but the expanded playground and thematic headspace of Annihilation works pretty well too. Don’t look for answers here, because you won’t get any. Unless Garland or someone else adapts one of Jeff VanderMeer’s sequels, then we might get some. Just enjoy the weirdness, and the debates about what it all means that follows. SSP

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Review: Game Night (2018)

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Wanna play a game?: Access Entertainment/Aggregate Films

GAME NIGHT is an unexpected delight. Something that could just be raucous and crude in the hands of the guys behind the VACATION remake from a couple of years back ends up being not only a really sharp comedy but a seriously polished action film as well. DC time-travel extravaganza FLASHPOINT might not turn out so bad if John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein stick with it.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) found each other through their love to win. At the latest of their game nights with their friends, Max’s alpha older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arranges for something a little more special: a simulated kidnapping. But when real criminals come after Brooks in revenge for dodgy deals gone wrong, Max, Annie and their fellow players will need more than a competitive spirit to get through the night.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an action-comedy (outside of comic adaptations) where the action is this good. The choreography and blocking of the fights and chases throughout the film is slick and creative as our players get way, and then way more, over their heads. One of the film’s standout sequences is an ambitious long-take of the characters being chased around a mansion tossing a Faberge Egg to each other, and it may well be even better executed than the casino fight in BLACK PANTHER.

There were shots in this I’ve never seen before (the shot turning in time with a lock, a crane shot weaving side-to-side in time with a swerving vehicle) and there’s a general gloss and precision to the whole enterprise. There must be a BEETLEJUICE influence here with the shots of model neighbourhoods from afar blending into real locations in closeup each time we move to a new location, and this playfulness makes for a nice contrast with all the violence.

The gags come thick and fast and the cast, epecially McAdams (Annie is sweary, bouncy, a bit scary), Billy Magnussen (Ryan is beaming, excitable, scarily stupid) and Jesse Plemons (Officer Gary is robotic, prone to melting into shadows, scariest) all sell the hell out of their characters. The group are split off into their respective pairings for much of the story and play off each other in some really entertaining ways. The scene of McAdams forced to do DIY surgery on an injured Bateman in an alley using an online tutorial on a phone that keeps going to sleep is something to behold, a comic set piece that’ll take some beating.

Not everyone is equally well served (Sharon Horgan is mostly reduced to grimacing at Magnussen) and Bateman doesn’t exactly have to stretch himself, but it must be difficult to divvy up memorable moments between such a varied ensemble. There isn’t really a weak link in the cast, unless like me you’re allergic to Danny Houston (thankfully he’s only in it for a scene).

I can’t think of many comedies (action-leaning or otherwise) where I’m considering buying the soundtrack. Clint Mansell’s 80s synthy momentum-builder is seriously effective and memorable. They’re clearly aiming for a franchise, with strong branding from the animated opening credits onward, added to the distinctive look and sound of the film. They’re certainly sequel-baiting at the end (mild spoiler: Kyle Chandler doesn’t learn his lesson) and with this group of characters, I’d quite happily go for at least one more of these. I just hope they can keep it fresh and give every performer chance to shine. SSP

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Review in Brief: Colossal (2016/17)

When I first heard about COLOSSAL – premise: giant monster is mysteriously linked to drunk Anne Hathaway – I thought, yes, that does sound like just my kind of movie. And you know what? It is! Hathaway and Jason Sudekis are at the top of their game, both playing way outside their comfort zone and going to some seriously dark places as the film boldly tackles some challenging issues, from addictive personalities to unhealthy abusive relationships. The other film it reminded me the most of was THE SKELETON TWINS; both films have an undulating tone and comedians playing it straight and are about how you can run but you can’t hide from your own and others’ self-destructive behaviour, you can only hope your coping mechanisms work. Colossal goes for a more fantastical slant, but for a movie with 200 foot monsters scrapping as they tower over Seoul’s skyline, it’s very grounded and very emotionally resonant. SSP

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Review in Brief: Jigsaw (2017)

While JIGSAW isn’t a bad movie, not even particularly low down in the wider SAW franchise (for the record it goes I, III, VI then Jigsaw) but it’s hard to love. Expect pleasing references to the earlier movies, new traps (my favourite for its simplicity is a big sandpit that immobilises you to have an assortment of sharp and heavy things drop in your head TOM AND JERRY-style) and a pretty easy mystery to solve. If you’ve seen even a handful of these movies surely by now you know the formula for guessing who Jigsaw’s (Tobin Bell, still having a blast) latest accomplice is: it’s not the really obvious suspect, it’s the slightly less obvious one. The Spierig Brothers are so much better than this material (watch PREDESTINATION) but they keep things polished and sure-footed even if few moments or characters are particularly memorable. SSP

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Review in Brief: Their Finest (2016/17)

Yes, it’s probably destined to be a perennial Sunday afternoon favourite along with all the other cosy feelgood historical fare, but THEIR FINEST has a fair bit of bite to it as well. It has what SUFFRAGETTE (dignified as it was) was missing: some palpable anger. Never mind the insult delivered to Catrin (Gemma Arterton), “obviously they can’t pay you as much as the chaps”, but women screenwriters didn’t even receive a writing credit for the considerable valuable work they contributed to the war effort. The film industry may still have a way to go to achieve true equality, but at least we’ll never go back to the days of anonymous “script girls”. Yes, Their Finest doesn’t quite stick the landing as either a particularly convincing romance or as an act of significant historical reassessment, but it’s got a bit of attitude and it’s very watchable with good turns from Arterton and Bill Nighy. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Vault (2017)

THE VAULT isn’t a very good…anything. Marketed as a horror-thriller (haunted bank vaults: why isn’t that a genre go-to?) but it just doesn’t work because it’s not scary and it’s not exciting. I think they might have been going for bank robbers doing a bad thing for the right reasons, a Robin Hood-type thing, but the character motivations and storytelling are so muddled that nothing really sticks. Taryn Manning and Francesca Eastwood are both fine as the sibling bank robbers, but James Franco makes no impact despite his character being pretty key to the plot and everyone else in the movie is just a cardboard cutout. It’s just a waste of the talents of everyone involved, lacking surprise, suspense, good lighting and general interest in what’s going on. Use your time better elsewhere if you can because this one really isn’t worth it. SSP

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Review: Lady Bird (2017)

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Retail therapy: Scott Rudin Productions/Entertainment 360

While we’re up to our eyeballs in father-son stories on film, even pretty frequently seeing father-daughter and mother-son stories (both examples involving sons tend to be dysfunctional, because aren’t we just the worst?), there are relatively few really good mother-daughter films. Then along comes LADY BIRD.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is at a difficult time in her life. Her Catholic school life is coming to an end, she wants a boyfriend, she wants to go to a college that will nurture her artistic inclinations and she’d love it if her mum (Laurie Metcalf) would get off her back for once. Since none of this (by Lady Bird’s estimations) will happen while she is stuck in Sacramento, “the Midwest of California”, she sees it as just the right time for her to leave the nest.

It’s so refreshing to see Saoirse Ronan, a young actor who I’m sure has bad hair and greasy skin days like the rest of us, allowed to have acne and lank hair, because that’s what real teens look like! The teenage characters speak how real teenagers do as well; they’re bright but not ridiculously verbose as someone like Diablo Cody might write them. Lady Bird’s defense of her mathematics skills not being a strength (“that we know of…yet”) and her uncomfortably “not flirting” with the cool kid in the band (Timothée Chalamet) rings far truer than all the forced (if charming) quirk of JUNO.

Major props to Laurie Metcalf for playing a challenging personality (the family “bad cop”) so sympathetically. Lady Bird’s mother is a formidable woman really struggling to understand her difficult daughter. In one of the film’s major moments, as she leaves Lady Bird at the airport for her journey to college she has a mini-meltdown that traverses an impressive emotional obstacle course in a very short space of time, and she still just about pulls herself together before she sees her husband (Tracy Letts) again.

The best scenes are the constantly shifting, passionate, petty arguments between Lady Bird and her mother. God bless her, but Lady Bird can be more than a little insufferable. She is the kind of kid who makes a scene over eggs at breakfast and would rather throw herself out of a moving vehicle than continue an awkward conversation, after all. A key point has Lady Bird asking her mother, of her potential, “What if this is the best version?” Tellingly, her mother struggles to alleviate her doubts. Still, at least she doesn’t lie to her!

The film unusually portrays a pretty positive Catholic education. Supportive and passionate teachers (Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson among others), ample opportunities for extra-curricular growth, not being expelled for graffitiing “just married to Jesus” on a nun’s car… Even if Lady Bird feels lost, it looks like a good school, a school with a sense of humour apparently, which sends the Irish kids home to sober up after they got drunk on locker-stockpiled minis on St Patrick’s Day.

The McPhersons have a really interesting, unusual family dynamic, with adopted children, surrogate children and ungrateful biological children. This isn’t overtly explained, but seeing the family unit sitting down for breakfast and the dynamics between them gradually flesh out throughout the film is enough.

Lady Bird draws liberally from Gerwig’s experiences, and the timelines certainly match up, but Gerwig has been keen to distance the film from the biopic label. Lady Bird’s story is perhaps a bit too neatly tied up by the end, it maybe could end a scene earlier for a more ambigious final note, but there’s very little else to criticise of the film as a whole.

Gerwig’s naturalistic delivery in her acting has carried over to her writing and direction. It’s a really good-looking, sharp, confident debut and her authorial imprint is already clear. We have graphically strong transition scenes, low-key character beats and jolts of joyous, more extrovert, endearingly goofy energy. Lady Bird is a thing of understated, honest beauty and a sign of great things to come from Gerwig. SSP

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