Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs is the latest offering from director Wes Anderson. It is his second film utilising stop motion animation and focuses on an island of outcast dogs in Japan and a young boys quest to find his old dog.

Seeing as this is Wes Anderson’s second film in stop motion you would expect to see improvements from his sophomore effort, the wonderful Fantastic Mr Fox, in terms of the fidelity of the animation. Thankfully the animation in this movie is sublime and is an absolute joy to behold. The amount of detail that’s poured into every frame is something to behold, with your eyes often darting about the screen trying to take in all the scenery. Subtle details such as the dogs hair gently blowing in the wind, or Greta Gerwigs character Tracy’s neck chief billowing slightly with her movements add another layer of sheen and believability to the animation. A sushi making scene also stood out as being particularly beautiful with it’s framing, use of colour and score.

Wes Anderson displays his technical competence here that is a joy to behold. The way the camera fluidly tracks vertically or horizontally with shots having a focus on being symmetrical is a Wes Anderson staple but he seems to be growing ever more confident in his ability to pull off more challenging shots. The level of coordination, time and planning these must take in this format is daunting to consider. However this medium grants him a greater degree of control over how everything looks and moves which he clearly relishes with his idiosyncratic stylings.

The cast is typically jam packed with huge stars as per usual, it certainly seems he’s one of those directors than can get pretty much anyone to star in his films, regardless of how small the part. The cast uniformly solid with Bryan Cranston taking the lead as Chief. His relationship with the young boy Atari is the emotional core the film is centered on. His journey from cynical feral dog not trusting the human to wholeheartedly loving the young boy is really sweet to watch unfold, especially if you like dogs.

The film is also very creative in how it translates the Japanese dialogue. There are no subtitles for the majority of the movie. Instead the Japanese characters speak in their native tongue, either with translators speaking over them or not at all. It’s a refreshing and quirky technique that works well here and feels quintessential Wes Anderson. You also never feel lost when there’s no translation due to the body language and tone conveying enough information for you to understand the context of what is being communicated.

For me, however, I didn’t get a lot out of this movie other than it being a really enjoyable, whimsical tale about the special relationship between dog and man. That’s not to say every movie has to have complex underlying themes to unravel, I just didn’t connect with the film on a deeper level, be it emotionally or thematically. I didn’t connect with the characters as strongly as I would have liked either, despite all the actors doing stellar work. This prevents the film from standing side by side but I don’t want to sound too negative as I still thought it was a wonderful piece of filmmaking that I’m looking forward to see again.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the score to this movie, by Alexandre Desplat. Most notably a recurring theme that really stood out with it’s unique sound and contributing to the atmosphere of the world.

All in all this was an enjoyable and really rather lovely film with truly stunning visuals and animation with a unique premise and lovingly crafted world. It didn’t resonate with me as much as the Grand Budapest hotel nor Fantastic Mr Fox, but then those are very high bars too clear. Another solid entry to an ever impressive filmography.

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers is a mini series that focuses on the exploits of Easy Company’s World War 2 campaign. It was released in 2001 and still remains one of TV’s strongest outings. Developed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it shares the same gritty aesthetic that works so successfully in Saving Private Ryan and almost serves as a companion piece.

Episodes often begin with the real life men from Easy Company discussing the events or ideas the episode is about to present us with. The show smartly forgoes naming these men until the closing statements of the finale. This allows the audience to still feel tension about who’s going to survive and also serves as a heartwarming ending where you realise who’s who and see how convincingly the actor portrayed them. All the actors are great throughout the show, believably conveying the changes the characters experience and always feeling like a unit, with the camaraderie between everyone really shining and adding another layer of authenticity. It truly is an ensemble piece, with each character being distinct and leaving an impression despite limited screen time in many instances. Often characters are granted one episode when they are centre stage and for the remaining episodes they feature primarily in the background. This allows each episode to be distinct from one another and help you connect with the multitude of characters. By the end of the show you’ll feel like you really know the characters. This is demonstrated best by the sequence where the men are playing baseball after the German armies surrender. With Damien Lewis narrating they inform the viewer about what each man went on to do following the war and in this heartwarming sequence that never fails to illicit a few tears…

The two part story set in Bastogne is the series highlight but there isn’t a weak episode throughout the run. By focusing on the medic during the period when the company faced barrages of bombs draws attention to the immense bravery and the mental toll war would take upon those who try to save the lives of their fellow soldiers. The episodes based around Bastogne is also where the show really shows off it’s budget. You really feel like you’re there, in the fox holes being bombarded by the enemy. Through this shared experience, you understand how such strong bonds are formed between the men. It’s quite jarring seeing how starkly the men, namely Marlarky, have changed in the subsequent episode. This is smartly centred on David Webster as he rejoins the company having missed Bastogne due to an injury. But having seen a mere glimpse of what they went through for the month you understand where the resentment they feel towards him originates, yet you also feel bad for the character having to earn the men’s respect once more, despite having been with them from the start. It’s great television that demonstrates the mediums ability to craft impactful stories and bring attention to different perspectives. It’s another aspect of the war, alongside the replacements episode, that you haven’t seen explored before that I found really engaging. The show really tugs at the heart strings too, with lovable characters suffering horrific injuries and a particularly emotional episode where the soldiers discover an interment camp. This powerful sequence comes during an episode focusing on intelligence officer Lewis Nixon’s struggles with alcohol and personal issues before coming face to face with the true horrors of the Nazis atrocities.

What’s impressed me upon my rewatch it just how well it holds up by today’s standards. At its time it was the most expensive TV show ever, with each episode costing around $1 million… It really shows too, as the production quality is second to none across the board. The focus on employing practical effects throughout is exemplary and helps the show stand the test of time. The CGI shots do stand out as being dated however but they are few and far between and understandable considering when it was produced. The show shares the same washed out colour palette that Steven Spielberg utilised in Saving Private Ryan that has now become a staple for the genre. The lack of vibrant colours effectively communicates the grim reality that these men experienced. It’s not until the final episode when the visual pallete expands and this coincides nicely with the surrender of the German army, where the men are able to relax and enjoy themselves.

All in all this is a seminal TV show that more than deserves its place amongst the very best that TV has to offer.

A Quiet Place

A quiet place
Paramount Pictures

A Quiet Place is a high concept horror movie that leaves the viewer hanging on the slightest of sounds, ratcheting up the tension from the opening scene and barely relenting throughout. Directed by John Krasinski, it centres on a family trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world where monsters detect and hunt based on sound. It’s a great concept that the movie revels with during the run time. John Krasinski plays Lee, the father of the family with Emily Blunt playing Evelyn, his wife. Their two children are played by Millicent Simmons as their deaf daughter Regan and Noah Jupe as their son Marcus.

Being largely silent, this film relies heavily on the sound design, and thankfully this is an area it succeeds resoundingly. What the soundscape helps do is permeate the film with a sense of dread and remind you of the constant threat than hangs over them, bringing you in to the plight of this family. You’ll clench your fists and feel your pulse race when they inevitably make mistakes. The film, for the most part, effectively utilises the jump scare, seeing as it actually makes narrative sense here. However, there are a fair few instances where it felt cheap. Not having that loud noise play to artificially frighten the viewer would have been more effective. This isn’t something unique to this film as it’s prevalent in modern horror movies but I wish directors would have the confidence to not indulge in the cheap jump scare and let these moments play out naturally, letting the visuals create fear.

The film starts out really strong, setting up the brutal world and showing how much of a threat the monsters are. It’s certainly one of the more memorable openings to a horror movie I’ve seen recently. It continues well, with the first two acts being really solid. The ways in which the family reduce noise in order to get by in their day to day lives was well thought out and communicated visually rather than doled out in forced exposition. John Krasinski, in combination with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, display nice touches of visual storytelling such as crisps and pills being left on the shelves at a supermarket or lighting beacons to communicate with nearby survivors. These touches add more credence to the world without feeling forced.

In theory, the commitment to such large portions of the film having no spoken dialogue would allow the few moments where characters speak to be more powerful, however some of the dialogue in these scenes was cheesy and quite on the nose. Instances where the characters bluntly explain certain ideas the film was already doing a great job of presenting were unnecessary. Still, the script is impressively lean here with little bloat, with almost everything being set up and paid off later.

The performances are impressive too, with some nice nuances that add depth. The subtle resentment Lee displays towards his daughter, Regan, is handled well and shown through glances and the body language rather than having it shoved in your face… Right up until the son brings it up with some stilted dialogue. Emily Blunt convinces as the grieving mother and really shines in the films standout sequence that crescendos wonderfully. The eldest daughter is also pretty great here, believably playing the stubborn and difficult adolescent girl. It’s refreshing that they were able to cast a deaf girl in the role, allowing the performance to feel more natural.

The final act of the film is weaker than what precedes with some contrivances and cheese, but not enough to derail the overall experience. The films resolution makes so much logical sense that it makes you wonder how the characters haven’t thought to try it before, especially since attention is given to the father’s research into the creatures. In addition to this, certain moments towards the end didn’t land as strong as they should, largely due to the cheesy dialogue. However, the final shot of the film is brilliantly tongue in cheek.

In summary, this is a solid and tautly made film that showcases John Krasinski’s talents behind the camera. It’s not without its issues but it’s commitment to its unique concept is commendable and it remains sufficiently tense throughout its run time, making it an enjoyable and delightfully stressful trip to the cinema.

Annihilation Discussion

Alex Garland’s second film pulling double duties as director and writer is a perfect microcosm about the creative issues Hollywood currently faces. Here we have a hypnotic, intellectual sci-fi horror movie that refuses to dumb itself down to appeal to the largest common denominator. It is thought provoking, ethereal and a wonderful piece of art that asks questions of the audience. It was made to be seen on the big screen.  And Paramount wouldn’t release it theatrically worldwide, with only a short run at the US box office with little marketing… Thank god Netflix picked it up and thank god Alex Garland and his producer were able to release this without studio mandated changes.

I have now seen this movie twice and enjoyed it considerably both times. On the repeat viewing you notice subtle, and some not to subtle, acts of foreshadowing and visual parallels that occur throughout allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions about the story. I watched it for the second time through the lens of everything being a metaphor for cancer. My friend saw someone mention it’s also about the importance of introspection and how, as humans, we constantly look outwards. This is a film that rewards with further viewings and deeper analysis. While I didn’t initially notice the theme of introspection, this is a deeply personal idea to me that likely helps explain, in part, why I enjoyed this film so greatly even if I hadn’t quite grasped those underlying messages.

The cancer metaphors are what initially jumped out of me- with numerous characters discussing cancer or having being affected by it- not to mention the repeated visual motifs showing cells mutating much in the same way that tumours do. The idea of The Shimmer representing cancer as an alien invader, attacking and mutating the DNA of Earth but without any malevolent purpose is quite profound. I also read the characters representing different ways people deal with cancer. Some fight it but are forever changed due to their experiences (Lena), some die in pain, and some have goals they need to accomplish before succumbing to the disease (Jennifer Jason Leigh). I felt Tessa Thompson’s character represented euthanasia, the way she accepted her fate and peacefully died. With Lena, I didn’t feel the shimmer in her eye meant that it was her copy, like Kane was, but that it indicated that she’s being changed, her DNA has been refracted due to her experiences in The Shimmer, much in the same way patients who survive the aggressive chemotherapy treatment will experience changes to their body and character. This was also foreshadowed early on with the Shimmer being reflected in her eyes when she first gazes upon it. Another reoccurring visual metaphor throughout the film is the forearm tattoo, that is designed to look like mutating cells. This appears on characters arms to symbolise their DNA having been mutated, with it first appearing on the dead soldier. There’s another nice piece of visual storytelling involving glasses with a late shot mirroring an earlier on shot, only this time the water droplets, again, look like cells mutating.

This film has scenes with grotesque body horror that really stay with you. One of the scenes that will surely haunt viewers involves a mutated bear who echoes the screams of a dead character after devouring her. As a character bluntly states after, a truly disturbing thought, having your last moments of pain be what you’re remembered for… Something I’m sure many cancer patients can identify with. This horror sequence is expertly handled with the tension mounting and impressive visuals and sound design being utilised to maximum effect.

The finale of this film is suitably mind bending and is a wonder to behold. There is a long stretch with no dialogue and only the wonderful visuals and score that combine to create something a very trippy and mind bending sequence. This sequence is pure sci fi goodness and doesn’t provide the audience with clear explanations about what exactly is happening. It trusts the audience is capable of coming to their own conclusions.

The camera throughout the film is used to communicate the idea that not all foreign bodies are necessarily a bad thing and good, even beautiful, things can come from initially horrible things. Shots of the two deer, the gorgeous flowers and the humanoid trees demonstrate this to me. I believe the film is trying to communicate that you can come out the other side horrific life events stronger than before despite been irrovecably changed. And that through introspection and self reflection you can become a better version of yourself.

In summary, this was a visually arresting, thematically resonant and, most importantly, thoroughly enjoyable film from start to finish. It is one that I will no doubt revisit numerous times, much like Ex Machina. I for one cannot wait to see what he treats us to next and let’s hope his projects only grow in ambition.

Blade Runner 2049

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Blade Runner 2049 (BR:2049) is one of my all time favourite sci-fi movies. It’s a shining example of how filmmakers should approach sequels and a greatly impressive feat of filmmaking prowess.

First, some background information about my relationship with the original. I appreciate the original movie more than I enjoy it. That’s not to say that I don’t still really like it but it’s never resonated with me to the degree that it does with other fans of the genre. On paper I should like it more than I do. The visuals, score, story and philosophical themes all really appeal to me but I have never connected emotionally to the movie. I feel the relationship between Deckard and Rachel felt forced and was only there to tie in with the central theme of the movie rather than it feeling natural. The film is at it’s best whenever Roy Batty is on screen, as he is by far the most interesting character. My two biggest gripes are not issues that BR:2049 shares with its predecessor.

The central plot of this movie revolves around the birth of the first replicant baby, with K, played by Ryan Gosling, tasked with tracking the child down. Ryan Gosling delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance, managing to convey so much with just the slightest glance. His ability to play the strong, silent character is used to maximum effect here. This is a character who longs for human connection and spends the film trying to discover and prove his humanity. That’s where Joi comes in, played by Ana de Armas. Joi is a female companion in holographic form. We are introduced to her “preparing” K’s dinner, showing us his desire to feel loved and his longing for a “normal” existence. The films poses an interesting question about how sentient Joi really is. Does she have her own wants and desires? Or is it all pre-programmed? An early scene where K takes her out to the rain would indicate that she is more than just a program is also a lovely call back to the original without it feeling hamfisted. However, during a stunning scene later in the film, K sees her holographic advertisement where she refers to him as Joe, indicates that she was just programmed to feed in to K’s wants and desires. The film doesn’t offer up a clear answer about how sentient she is. For me, I felt that she wasn’t just a program. While she may have been programmed to act a certain way towards K, wouldn’t that feel real to her still? To me, she experiences genuine feelings but doesn’t have free will in the way that the other replicants demonstrate. The fact she wanted to go out to feel the rain and that she contacted the prostitute off her own volition due to her desire to want to be with K, indicated that she is more than just her programming. A sex scene later in the film demonstrate Dennis Villeneuve’s mastery of visual storytelling, crafting a unique and beautiful sequence that leaves a strong impression upon the viewer.

The film tackles the theme about what makes you human in a way that really resonated with me. For me, the film demonstrates the idea that if a being has their own dreams, desires and free will then regardless of their form , then they have a soul and as such display their humanity. This is something K strives to find throughout the film and ends up proving through his act of reuniting Deckard with his estranged daughter. In doing this he proves his humanity through disobeying his orders and dying for a cause greater than himself, as stated by the replicant rebel leader. Traits that are distinctly human. In the final scene of the movie, the song Tears in the Rain plays while he lies down in the snow. A beautiful evocation of the finale in the original.

The cinematography in this movie is truly astonishing. Roger Deakins outdid himself here lovingly displaying the incredible world up on the screen in dream like fashion. After 14 Oscar nominations, he finally won. And a well deserved win at that. He has a career where he was created some of the most striking images ever put to screen and yet, this is one of his finest pieces of work. What I like so much about Deakins is that he moulds his style so effortlessly to suit the director he’s working with but you can still always feel his DNA all over the images he creates. The set and location design is expertly handled too. At once this world is both reminiscent of the original while exploring new locales. This allows the creative team to expand upon the world Ridley Scott created in interesting ways, making the universe feel believable and while insinuating that there is still plenty left to explore. Through the use of miniatures and clever camera techniques along with CGI when necessary the world feels tangible and lived in. The visuals and sets are varied utilising different designs and colour palettes, always giving you something to soak in. Working so closely with the set designers really worked wonders here as it allows everything to come together seamlessly. The way he lights Wallace’s office with water rippling across the walls is a stroke of genius, and is one of my favourite set designs in recent memory.

Another aspect that I feel is worth bringing attention to is the pacing and editing. This is a very long and slowly paced movie that never feels it’s length. Every scene has its place within the narrative. There’s so much to take in at any one moment that the movie remains gripping throughout it’s considerable run time. This is one such area that BR:2049 surpasses the original. The original is a very slow film that runs under two hours, but feels longer. There are scenes that ran on longer than they needed to and I found my attention waning in a few instances. There’s a brilliant example of editing that occurs when the camera pans up, tracking embers from a fire that blend into the cityscape seamlessly. All these techniques allow this to be an enthralling movie that never loses your attention.

Hans Zimmer has really been on his A game this year, crafting two of the years best and most unique scores. Here he creates such an uneasy, haunting and disconcerting soundscape that perfectly matches the visuals on screen. Yet, when the scene calls for it the score is beautiful, with serene tracks such as “Joi” and “Rain” being two of my favourite compositions of the year.

Dennis Villeneuve already cemented his place as one of my favourite directors working today. He has deftly jumped between genres and never delivered a final product anything less than great. Hollywood needs more auteurs like him. It is incredibly sad that this film underperformed at the box office because studios will be less likely to fork out the considerable money required to bring visions like this to the screen. There are sure to be many reasons this movie didn’t delivery the box office receipts many were expecting, the slow pace and complex narrative likely not helping. But it is a minor miracle that the creative team behind this were awarded the money needed and were able to craft the film as they saw fit. It is truly a masterpiece and one that will be remembered and appreciated for years to come.

 

Anomalisa

This stop motion film from Charlie Kaufman is one of the most human and genuine movies I’ve seen. Here, Charlie Kaufman teams with Duke Johnson to bring us the story of Michael, played by David Thewlis, who works as an inspirational speaker but is unable to connect with others. This enables the movie to explore themes of loneliness, depression and isolation in a poignant manner.

Initially some of the techniques used seemed odd but as the film begins to reveal itself to you, they make perfect sense and do a great job of putting you in the main characters head space. The choice to have every character look the same and be played by the same actor is bold but serves a clear narrative purpose as it enables the audience to connect and feel sympathy for Michael, despite him not always being wholly likeable. It highlights how an individual such as Michael views the world and how he can’t connect with people on a human level as everyone is nondescript. A very impressive Tom Noonan is tasked is playing every other character bar Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Through Lisa, Michael thinks he has found someone who he believes he can connect with and allow himself to feel something for, something that has clearly eluded him for a long time.

On a technical level, this film is a joy to behold and impressed me greatly. There were numerous long takes with multiple location changes which must have been hugely challenging. The cinematography and lighting really helps ground the characters in this space and helps the locations feel real. The detail in the environments is second to none and you never question whether or not these could be genuine locations. Clearly a lot of love and attention to detail was poured into every frame. Everything on display contributes to the overarching themes and ideas the film presents. On one hand, the film feels realistic in order to draw you in to the world and make it feel tangible. The film does not shy away from the banality of everyday life, with mundane tasks being allowed to run their course. Then, through the character design for example, makes you feel disconnected and isolated from the world at large. Every element works in harmony with one another to give this film a very strange quality to it. One of the movies standout sequences is a tender and very realistic sex scene. The way it presents this scene is very unique with its slow pacing and lingering on the minute details that occur. It is a sequence that is sweet and emotional yet it is also uncomfortable and awkward. A real masterstroke on the filmmakers behalf.

As an individual who hasn’t experienced feelings of depression and isolation like the film presents, the film still affected me personally a great deal. It is presented so well that almost everyone will be able to identify with it on some level. However, I would love to know how people who have suffered with these afflictions feel how accurately the film aligns with their own experiences.

Overall this is a fantastic film that I have only grown to appreciate more upon reflection. I hope Charlie Kaufman is able to finance more of his projects as he’s demonstrated himself to be a true auteur and artist, able to delve deep in to the human condition and challenge the audience in meaningful ways.

Quick Thoughts

Good Time

This is an absolute gem of a movie. It seems to have gone under the radar of a lot of people which is a real shame as it’s an absolute thrill ride from start to finish and one of 2017’s best movies. Robert Pattinson delivers a career best performance here and I feel it’s a real shame he was overlooked at the award ceremonies. This is the first movie I’ve seen by the Safdie brothers but I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. The film’s style is one of it’s strongest elements with very claustrophobic camera work and psychedelic visuals giving it a very unique look. When they do pull the camera back you’re treated to lovely tracking shots of cars driving with the incredible synth soundtrack playing over. The film is darkly comic keeping you on the edge of your seat with the story going in directions you’d never have thought. Loved it.

Gerald’s Game

This is an enjoyable psychological horror/thriller with a great lead performance by Carla Gugino. I always enjoy films that put you in the characters shoes and force you to start thinking about how you’d get out of their predicament. The film is really tense and disturbing in certain scenes and has some creepy imagery. I think the final 10 minutes of the movie are awful as it devolves into this cheesy narration that over explains the films plot. It would have been much more rewarding if the filmmakers came up with a more creative way to provide the viewer with this information. Despite this, it is still a solid thriller that is worth checking out.

Pan’s Labyrinth

It’s outrageous that it has taken me so long to check out Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece. I loved this gothic fairy tale and you can feel the love Del Toro has for the material throughout. The design of all the creatures and the world is second to none with the Pale Man and the faun being iconic creations. He also gave us a great villain in Captain Vidal, a sadistic army officer with a penchant for extreme violence. The little girl does a great job playing Ofelia and you really root for her throughout. The film’s visuals are absolutely breathtaking, beautifully capturing Del Toro’s unique vision. This is a really wonderful film that I’m so glad I finally got round to watching.

The Big Sick

This is one of the loveliest movies I have ever seen. Kumal Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon have written an incredible romantic comedy that will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy after. The relationship between the two lead characters is amazingly well realised and feels so genuine throughout. All the actors give outstanding performances, especially Roy Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents. It also portrays Pakistani culture in a fantastic way highlighting the differences between our cultures without being overtly judgemental. This film delivers gut busting laughs and big emotional moments that feel very real thanks to the fact that this is a true story… All the side characters are great too, especially as a fan of Bo Burnham. All in all this is a fantastic feel good movie that everyone should check out.

Eye In The Sky

This movie was pretty engaging throughout and had some really strong performances. I enjoyed the moral quandaries this film tackled head on about the use of drone strikes and weighing up the collateral damage. I think they did a decent job of discussing both points of view but it very decidedly takes a position about whether the filmmakers consider it morally acceptable. My main issue with the film is it felt over the top in a few instances and the technology they use was just silly and took me out of the movie. However, overall this is a solid movie that poses interesting questions about the murky ethics and legality of carrying out drone strikes that is entertaining throughout.