I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.
In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.
Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.
Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.
Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.
Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.
I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.
As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.
Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s. Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.
This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.
The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.
Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.
Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’
With every VIFF, it’s a goal of mine to see at least one shorts segment. I had the good fortune of seeing a segment as my first VIFF show. The segment titled Escape Routes consisted of six shorts by Canadian directors. Three of them were filmed in BC. All six were intriguing to watch.
The Subject (dir. Patrick Bouchard): We see a body on the table. We see a spike coming out of a foot at first. Then we see it start to be dissected. What’s happening is a whole lot of imagery happens around his body and coming from out of his body. Then when he’s dissected in his upper chest, we see a steel inside.
What’s happening in this film is the animator dissecting his own body. This film is the animator using self-dissection to show what his works are all about. His emotions, his memories, his fears, all go into his work. A couple of religious entendres may be telling how it plays into his fears. Even the artistic patterns that form around his skin give a picture about what the animator is saying about himself and how it plays into his works.
Girl On A Bus (dir. Matthew B. Schmidt): The film begins with people questioning about a girl who disappeared. Then the film shoots to a scene on a bus. A teenage/young adult female is one of the passengers and she’s just relaxing and looking at Instagram photos. The bus takes a break at a gas station along the highway. She uses the outside bathroom and changes her hair, makeup and clothes to something very different and takes social media pictures. The driver can’t recognize her and thinks a passenger is missing. As police are questioning the ‘missing girl,’ she gets interrogated and gives misleading questions. She mentions she’s running away but doesn’t say why. She leaves the interrogation booth. A picture from a child identifies her as the missing, but she walks away when asked.
At first, it seems like a nonsense film. A girl changes her look but is labeled missing? Then you get the sense of what’s happening. She says she’s running away but gives a vague answer why. When told to stay at the booth as the police leave temporarily, she leaves. When asked if the photo of her on a child’s pad is her, she doesn’t answer and walks away. It makes more sense later on. She comes across as a girl who wants to escape from it all. It’s not apparent exactly the reason or reasons why, but it’s obvious she wants to escape from everything. Only on social media would she want to be around people. I can identify because I had those same feelings when I was her age. A very good short story of a film.
Best Friends Read The Same Books (dir. Matthew Taylor Blais): The film consists of no sound at all, but of images of plants, colors, bushes, parks, coasts, and the director reading a book in various places and various seating positions on a bench. The film ends with a set of colors.
I’ll take it for what it is. This is the director trying to film in an abstract sort of way. The images, around various areas of Greater Vancouver, are meant to tell about his surroundings and reading the same book.
Train Hopper (dir. Amelie Hardy): The film begins with a passage of Allen Ginsberg’s poem America. Then cuts into a video of a young man who’s a customer service agent working at his desk with his headset. Later we catch the young man around trains on the train tracks. Then we see him hopping on the trains between the cars and going along for the ride. We even see his self-recorded videos of him during the trips. Within the second-half of the film and video footage, we hear the man talk about his dreams and his imagination and why he takes these trips, which include trips crossing into the United States. The film ends with audio of Ginsberg’s America.
The film begins with a statement that the Beat Generation is not dead. The whole film is a picturesque reminder that even in this day and age, there are still young people who still dare to dream, who dare to still want to live their dream out. This film shows it with this young man who’s a customer service agent by profession, but dreamer by passion. An excellent cinematic portrait.
Acres (dir. Rebeccah Love): The story begins with a young man working on a farm. Later on, his sister, her husband and a former girlfriend of his join for dinner. They talk about him managing his father’s farm after his death, as well as a dispute over use of the land that will require legal attention. The sister and brother-in-law leave for home but the ex-girlfriend decides to stay overnight. Possibly to help him with his situation. She is a photographer by passion. The two were in love while they were in college. This is happening while they’re talking of a way to properly mark the burial site of his father’s ashes. He had ambitions of becoming a businessman, but passions in his life that involved travelling caused him to leave everyone behind, including the family and even her. She tries to get to the bottom of this. Especially since this caused their break-up. Eventually they do rekindle.
The film is a picturesque way of showing a real-life situation. It’s a quiet situation, but one that needs to be discussed and resolved. The filmmaker does it with good storytelling and honest dialogue.
Biidaaban (dir. Amanda Strong): This is the one short that’s fully animated. There’s one young person of Indigenous decent, Biidaaban, and an older Sasquatch shapeshifter Sabe. They live in the same dwelling. They communicate with what you first think is a smartphone, but is actually a mystic rock that creates images and dialogue. Biidaaban seeks to collect sap from maple trees in a neighborhood. Sabe will assist Biidaaban. As they collect the sap, they are suddenly taken over by spirits and enter into a mystical world.
Upon the film’s Q&A, we learn the film is not just about Indigenous legends and myths. It’s also about gender-fluidity as Biidaaban is a gender-fluid youth. From what I remember about the Q & A, the gender-fluidity does tie in with Indigenous culture. The whole film was very dramatic and very mystical. The genre of animation allows the viewer to feel the imagination of the film and capture the mysticism.
All six shorts were very intriguing to watch. Even with one more thrilling than the other, and one not trying to be thrilling at all, all had something to say. Sometimes you wondered if all six fit the term Escape Routes. Some of the subjects or plots in a film or two didn’t look like physical escapes at all. However many of them turned out to be escapes of the mind. Escaping isn’t just about a road to somewhere.
Escape Routes was an excellent selection of six Canadian shorts. Each were different in their own way. All of them had something to say. And all would come off as an escape from something. You had to see it to know it.
2016 was a stellar year for animated movies from Zootopia to Moana to Kubo And The Two Strings to Finding Dory. 2016’s line-up gave people lots of reason to come to the movie theatres. 2017 was very lackluster in comparison. We’re talking about a year when The Boss Baby was nominated for Best Animated Feature and even the mere existence of The Emoji Movie. 2017 almost made it look like if Sausage Party were released that year instead, it would be a Best Animated Feature nominee! However the best animated movies of 2017 slowly made its way on the screen in the latter months of 2017. I was lucky to see Ferdinand, Coco and Loving Vincent: three of the best of the year.
When I was about to see Ferdinand, I wondered how they would able to take the small story and turn it into a feature-length picture. I myself remember an animated short made by the Walt Disney studios made decades ago that was very humorous. However I wondered how would a feature-length adaptation play out?
The story starts out well with an entertaining look, but a bit of sadness at the beginning. As it progresses to adult Ferdinand, Ferdinand is funny and charming as a husky but flower-loving bull. John Cena adds to the characterization of full-grown Ferdinand. The characters of Lupe, Una and the other bulls add to the story.
There were times I wondered how will they get to where Ferdinand is scouted out by his accidental outburst? How will it be written out? Although it’s not true to the fable, the writers were able to create a way for Ferdinand to be discovered and sent to the bull rings to fight.
Another case that had me wondering was right in the middle of the story. It had me wondering how on earth the story would have a happy ending? Of course the film needed to have a kid-friendly happy ending, but in a situation where the bull either becomes a fighting bull who dies in the ring or to the slaughterhouse as meat? Nevertheless the writers were able to make the story work with good events to the plot and not just simply drag it out over the time. Even creating an ending where Ferdinand wins over the crowd and getting them to want him to live works for the film.
For the most part, Ferdinand is not all about the type of intricate story you’d expect to find in a Disney/Pixar film. Instead Ferdinand is about creating a charming modern adaptation of the short fable with charming and entertaining characters. It succeeds in charming the audience as well as entertaining the children. Despite the story being elongated into a feature-length picture, the film does not waste time. It succeeds in being entertaining. It also adds in some other elements that gets one nervous of what will happen to Ferdinand, even if they know the story. The story works in its feature-length and will not disappoint fans of the fable. It’s also good at winning crowds too as it made a good $282 million at the worldwide box office.
Very often you know the Disney/Pixar collaboration will deliver something fresh and original in its arsenal that’s able to win us over. This year, they deliver Coco. Coco is unique because it’s of a Mexican family situated in Mexico. The question is will they make something original and unique entertaining to the public?
The team of writers and animators at Disney/Pixar are known for their innovations and their frequently-successful way of trying new concepts. First there was 1995’s Toy Story: the first-ever 3D animated feature. Then came A Bug’s Life which created an engaging story revolving around insects. Then Finding Nemo not only told a story about fish, but successfully took us to another world. The Incredibles was good at teaching morals in an entertaining way. Ratatouille made an entertaining story involving a rat. Wall-E magically gave us an engaging story about two robots in love with very little dialogue. It was Brave where they not only gave us their first female protagonist, but welcomed a female writer on their ‘dream team.’ And there was Inside Out which made character out of emotions.
Coco is not just a new movie from the Disney/Pixar collaboration, but a new chapter for them. They hired Mexican/American writer Adrian Molina as the scriptwriter along with Matthew Aldrich. Molina had already been part of Pixar as a 2D animator for Ratatouille, a storyboard artists for Toy Story 3 and Monsters University, and even wrote the script for Walt Disney Studios’ The Good Dinosaur. The voice cast is predominantly of Mexicans or Mexican Americans. Disney/Pixar even hired a ‘cultural consultant’ group of three Mexican-Americans including one former CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corp to make sure they were doing a film respectful of Mexican people.
The result is a film that has garnered praise even from both critics and even Mexican-American communities. The film even received excellent reviews from Latin American film critics. The film was also a top box office winner having grossed $730 million so far. Even in Mexico, it spent three weeks at #1 in the Mexican box office and grossed a total of $57.8 million in Mexico.
Now the film itself does what Disney/Pixar films have a reputation for: taking the audience to a new world. Here they give an excellent depiction of the Land Of The Dead that looks very intricate and maybe too big, but succeeds in making sense to the viewer. Once again the animation team does an excellent job in creating this new world and even the smallest detail is done with perfection. Once again Disney/Pixar is tops in animation quality.
However there was one time I was confused by the story. I’ll admit like most, I thought Ernesto was the great-great-grandfather. I was shocked when I learned that Ernesto killed Hector with poison. It left me wondering if Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was in fact a dirty killer. Even seeing Ernesto send Miguel to die in the cenote pit left me shocked. ‘Why would Ernesto do this to his own great-great-grandson?’ It’s in the pit with Hector that we learn that Hector is really the great-great-grandfather. That was a relief. It was there where it became better sense why Miguel needed to redeem the name of the family through the spirit of Hector. The story was very well-written and very entertaining. Also the song ‘Remember Me’ is an excellent song for the movie that makes for the perfect tearjerker moment you don’t feel manipulated by.
One again Disney/Pixar delivers a masterpiece in Coco. It is as top-quality as it is magical to watch.
Now the previous two films in which I just talked about are both the more family-friendly films. Loving Vincent is the polar opposite of both. It’s not cute, it’s less family-friendly, and it’s not even 3D computerized animation. It also didn’t even make $10 million at the box office. Nevertheless it is charming in its own ways.
The film is a plot where Armand Roulin is asked by his father Joseph to deliver a letter from Vincent Van Gogh who died a year earlier to his brother Theo. After learning Theo died, Armand looks to find the right person to give the letter to. Throughout the journey, Armand tries to get the answer to whether Vincent’s death was a suicide or not? He was released from a hospital after found to be in good mental capacity six weeks before.
Armand comes across many people in Vincent’s life. Some have positive things to say. Some negative things. All have something to say about the person of Vincent, the various people he met with or fought against, and his personal feelings before his death. This still leaves Armand confused and his question of Vincent’s death unanswered. It’s right after Dr. Gachet promises to give the letter to Theo’s widow that he learns van Gogh’s suicide wasn’t of mental agony, but to free himself and his brother. Later Armand receives a letter from Theo’s widow thanking him.
This animated film about Vincent Van Gogh couldn’t be a simple animated film. Instead this is a film in which the images were done by 100 painters trained to paint like Van Gogh. The object of the film was to create a story involving characters of people Van Gogh painted and was close to in his life across a backdrop that’s just like the paintings he painted. Basically an animated story about Van Gogh that captures the essence of Van Gogh’s art. The story may be fictional, but it succeeds in playing out like a Van Gogh painting. It even gets one that knows very little about Van Gogh’s works or his life intrigued. It even gets fans of Van Gogh’s art admiring the film for capturing the essence of the artist and his works. I also like how the film ended as “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” was playing. It would make those who never understood what the song was all about understand it better.
So there’s my look at three of the best animated films of 2017. All three are nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. All three are enjoyable in their own way.
This year seems like the year I’ve seen more experimental film at the VIFF than ever before. The latest experimental feature I saw was Forest Movie. It was shot all in Vancouver and it does a lot with the 65 minutes it has.
The film begins with images of a forest and then phases into a young woman sleeping. The young woman was actually dreaming of the forest. She sends a text message to her friend that she can’t meet up: she’s sick. The friend accepts.
What she does right after is put on a jacket and bring along her bag and portable chair. She simply leaves from her apartment suite near Powell St. and Nanaimo St. and walks to a forest inside the city. The visit is simple as she walks across the paved trails over the rocks and branches with her cellphone turned off. A complete getaway. There are times she takes breaks like for when she eats something or feels she needs to write poetry or prose in her notebook. Other than that, just simply walking through the forest.
Then she finds a grassy spot that’s open and surrounded by the trees. She uses that spot as a place to set up her chair and relax. There’s a twenty-minute shot of the area of the forest she witnesses from her chair. It just consists of that view, changes of sunshine or cloud, and the surrounding sounds of the outdoors or her dealing with her chair, bag or notebook.
Night soon falls. She actually fell asleep during her time sitting in the forest. Night approaches. She’s all alone in the dark relying on her cellphone as a flashlight. She rushes to find the exit to the forest, but is lost. Images of her attempt to exit consist of her cellphone light shining or complete darkness with nothing but sound. Morning breaks and we see her walking back to her apartment as if nothing dreadful happened.
No question this film can be defined as experimental. The film is what it is. It’s a story about a young woman seeking tranquility in a forest and is willing to deal with whatever comes to her. The director Matthew Taylor Blais was in the audience and would later hold a Q&A after. Before the film started, he said: “No two people will have the same impression of this film.”
I got what he was after in this film: he wanted us to create our own thoughts, impressions and opinions about this film. That explains why actress Ana Escorse is given no dialogue at all in this film. The film is all about what we see and what we hear. I was open to this. The film gives us images and scenes that try to get us to form our own opinions. For starters, I actually thought the woman really was sick from the texts she sent. I though she went to the forest possibly for natural healing therapy. That scene in her apartment that shows an Aboriginal dream catcher could may have made some, including myself, believe she’s into Aboriginal spirituality and may see the forest as the medicine she needs. Even the scene where you see trees just outside a condo leads you to think this is an urban forest close to downtown Vancouver in Stanley Park, when it’s actually shot in Pacific Spirit Regional Park close to UBC.
Later shots add into the opinions we form about this film. The scenes where she takes out her notebook and writes or draws might get one to think she’s using the forest for creative inspiration. That twenty-minute shot of the forest’s view is an attempt to get us to rely on the background sounds to form our own opinions about what’s happening from this view. The end scene of her trying to leave the forest at night is also one that gets us to rely on our thoughts of what’s happening. The scene with the biggest impact is the scene where the camera makes like we see her escape through her eyes. It consists of the background sounds and the cellphone light cutting in and out. It’s actually the scene with the most drama as one would wonder will she make it? Will she get lost?
Matthew Taylor Blais does a very good job with this film. I was more welcoming with the experimentation in this film than I was in PROTOTYPE. I think Blais’ intro before it began helped me to be more welcoming. It’s an experimental film that pays off and allows the audience to create their own impression. It allowed me to create mine. However it is to say that it does take some creative risks that would be questionable. I welcomed that twenty-minute shot of the forest scenery, but some were not so welcoming. In fact I saw a few people leave the theatre during that scene, including a group of four. That’s one of the risks of creating an experimental film like this. Not everyone is as welcoming as me to such experimentation.
Forest Movie is an experimental film that allows the audience to exercise their imagination and make their own judgements about what’s happening in the story. This is experimental film that pays off greatly.
If there is one style of film that reigned supreme at the box office this summer, it’s the animated movies. It had some of the best results not just of the summer but the whole year as Finding Dory grossed more than any other movie in 2016 and The Secret Life Of Pets is also in the annual Top 10 so far. There were a wide variety of animated movies from sequels to stop-motion to even an animated movie for adults only. For my summary, I will review four animated films for the summer: Finding Dory, The Secret Life Of Pets, Sausage Party and Kubo And The Two Strings.
It’s been thirteen years since Finding Nemo hit the big screen and captivated crowds. This time around it’s Finding Dory. The question is does it still have the same magic?
The magic of Disney/Pixar films is that it’s not only about top notch animation but also about taking the audience to new and exciting worlds of the imagination. The magic of Finding Nemo is that it captured the magic of the sea world. Finding Dory attempts to capture the magic of the sea world again but it also tries to capture another magic. This time it’s the magic of the Marine Life Institute. It does a very good job of creating a universe out of a marine life park. I’m sure that when Pixar was writing the script for this film, it had to create its own map on how the park would be for Dory to go from place to place. It even had to create the system of communication through pipes.
In addition, the story had to focus on the animals headed to quarantine. That was intertwined with Dory’s search for her parents. It gives a story with many facets. It starts with Dory’s search for her parents and leads to much more. Whatever the situation, it leads to a story that the audience will find thrilling as well as enchanting to look at.
Pixar does it again with writing out an excellent story and giving it top-notch animation. Once again I doubt if you’ll find a glitch. Andrew Stanton returns as director and co-writer with Victoria Strouse and they deliver an excellently entertaining movie. This time it’s Ellen De Generes’ time to own the show. She stole Finding Nemo and now this is her time to have the show as her own. Albert Brooks is back again and he delivers an excellent performance as Marlin too. The film features a lot of other big names as voices like Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Ed O’Neill, Bill Hader, Alison Janney, Sigourney Weaver (of course) and Idris Elba.
If there’s one glitch about Finding Dory, it’s that a lot of children may not understand the story in its entirety. For the most part, it’s us older adults who have seen Finding Nemo that understand Dory and her situation. I think that was it. Pixar was making a film that would be meant for both children who love animated movies and the grown up adults who have a special place in their heart for Finding Nemo.
Finding Dory continues on the excellence of Disney/Pixar and continues the charm we first saw in Finding Nemo and entertains crowds this summer in big numbers.
The Secret Life Of Pets
Ever wonder what your pets do when you go to work or school? The Secret Life Of Pets attempts to answer that question of what happens, as long as you live in modern Manhattan. And boy does it give some interesting answers.
This movie creates a humorous premise: pets that come across as your typical house pets but have a sneaky double-life when their owners aren’t home. However they find themselves in trouble and they all have to get back home in time before their owners return.
The thing about this movie is that it’s not focused too much on the story or taking the audience to another world the way Pixar movies do. Instead its focus is on creating crazy humor and funny characters. It’s obvious from the start its intention is to be a crazy goofy comedy to get us all laughing and it succeeds.
However such a movie cannot compromise on things like a solid story with the right beginning, middle and end, characters that fit the story and top quality animation. The movie does exactly that. Actually this movie is more driven on the humorous characters rather than be story-driven like Pixar films. Hey, we’re talking about the same animation studio that gave us the Minions. It works for such a movie and it wins over movie audiences young and old.
Pixar is not the only animation studio alone at the top. Illumination Entertainment has given it some rivalry especially with the Despicable Me movies and the Minions. Here Illumination brings back its main director Chris Renaud and its writer Bryan Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to create another entertaining film. The film even includes a lot of great vocal talent from Albert Brooks, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K. and Steve Coogan just to name a few.
The Secret Life Of Pets isn’t so much about creating a mesmerizing world the way Pixar’s movies are. What it does is create a story that’s entertaining to watch and full of fun intriguing characters. No wonder it charmed crowds this year.
Sausage Party is the first wide-release animated film since South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut to earn an R-rating. And rightly so. And I’m sure the animators, directors and actors of the movie wouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s obvious right from the start that Sausage Party is a spoof of Disney/Pixar movies but as you watch over time, and even as you look back in retrospect, it’s obvious it’s a lot more.
Those of you who’ve seen Sausage Party will know that it’s not like most of the animated movies released today. Sometimes you may even get the feeling the movie is trying to sabotage all those family-friendly movies and the wholesome values they stand for. It sure seems that way.
I hate to bring up retro 90’s assimilations but it reminded me of a lot of 90’s entertainment that pushed envelopes and had sadistic pleasure slaughtering sacred cows and skewered values and morals we held dearly, and somehow charmed us into wanting more. Yes, such entertainment that knew we’re all gluttons for punishment. And we saw that in Sausage Party as they were definitely doing lot of tricks in the book to freak us out, whether it be the storyline or characters or images, and succeeding. We also see how it’s even skewering the wholesome values that are normally promoted in the family-friendly animated movies.
One major difference that keeps it from being 90’s-style envelope-pushers. One thing about all those envelope-pushing balls-to-the-wall entertainment of the 90’s that they not only pushed boundaries but they were also successful in making squeaky clean entertainment or entertainment with morals and a conscience look either wimpy or look like a complete joke. Yep, entertainment that broke all the rules and changed the game in the process. Can you blame me for calling them ‘The Nasty Nineties?’
I don’t think Sausage Party succeeded in doing that. Despite the ‘Dixar’ bumper sticker, it’s not as much the punch-in-the-stomach comedy or middle-finger to squeaky clean entertainment from Seth McFarlane or the South Park duo is. Yes, it does mess with wholesome entertainment but it’s more interested in having fun and pleasure making us squirm in our seat. Even though it did warp my brain, I will admit this was the most fun I had in a movie theatre this summer. It’s definitely my ‘guilty pleasure’ movie of the year.
Some people have complained that the movie is anti-religion. I don’t deny that as made obvious by the characters which include one Jewish and one Arabic and most of the lot appearing to resemble Christianity. You get the first hind right at the beginning as the groceries refer to the humans as ‘the gods’ and of the mustard coming back scared over the reality of what they’ve always called the ‘great beyond.’ I knew it would be critical of religion from the reviews I’ve read and I was expecting to get my tolerance on that subject tested. However I will state it’s not the obvious blasphemy as one would commonly see in South Park episodes or a lot of works done by Seth MacFarlane. I will also state that even atheism is also looked upon critically as it will state some common traits among many atheists like a feeling of misery or a ‘smarter than thou’ attitude.
If there is one glitch, I will have to say it’s the ending. What you first think will be the ending isn’t. Instead it will lead into what should be known as an ‘animation orgy party’ and then into a bizarre ‘reality check.’ I don’t have problems with them being in the movie or even in the ending but there are many times I feel the ending could have been done better or mapped out better.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of animation studios talk, it’s interesting to know that heading this film is a Canadian studio: Nitrogen Studios Canada Inc. The head of the studios, Greg Tiernan directs his first ever feature length film along with Conrad Vernon who has directed films like the Shrek movies, the Madagascar films and Kung Fu Panda too. You could say Vernion is spoofing his own films here. Interesting that while most animated movies of this summer have big budgets, this one only cost $20 million to make. Even though the animation was not as flawless as Pixar–and I noticed some technical glitches– its top focus was the humor and it definitely succeeded at that.
Without a doubt, Seth Rogen owned the film. It was pretty much his idea to do such a film like this for years. He not only acts in this but is co-producer and co-writer along with Kyle Hunter, Evan Goldberg and Ariel Shaffir with a story he wrote along with Goldberg and Jonah Hill. He has the delightfully evil charm of the film in his hands and knows how to deliver it well. Additional acting highlights come with Kristen Wiig and Brenda Bunson, Salma Hayek as Teresa del Taco, Bill Hader as Firewater, Nick Kroll as Douche and Edward Norton as Sammy Bagel Jr. just to name a few.
Sausage Party is a film that deserves to be hated but you can’t help but love it. Yes, it will warp your mind but it has a delightfully evil charm that will make it your guilty pleasure of the year. Just don’t bring the kiddies.
Kubo And The Two Strings
After Sausage Party warped my mind, I had to watch Kubo And The Two Strings to reclaim my sanity. Good choice as it was a marvel to watch.
Normally it’s the Pixar movies that have the animation magic that mesmerize us and take us all to another world. This summer, I’d have to say it’s the world of Kubo. It was best at creating a world and an adventure that was enchanting and mesmerizing. It took a unique story that isn’t exactly one that’s best at winning big crowds and turned it into a spectacular marvel.
The thing with Finding Dory is that it does succeed in doing that but it’s a world we’ve been to before and whatever new world is in the story doesn’t differ to much from the world of Finding Nemo. In Kubo, we have a fresh new world of the imagination and that’s its advantage.
The story element of the film is just as strong. It’s about the fate of humanity and good in the world being threatened by evil and the mortality of souls and it resting in the fate of Kubo. Especially since it includes the fates of the souls of Kubo’s own parents. It’s the story of a son of a late master samurai who goes from master storyteller to the one to fight the evil forces. The very cinematic values that make the superhero movies make Kubo. In addition, it gives an alternate definition of ‘destroying the enemy’ one would come to expect. And a definition that appears to be the right thing.
While most of the films this summer were 3D computer animated films from start to finish, Kubo was a mix of both 3D computer animation and 3D stop-motion. This is a common trademark of Laika studios as seen in their past releases like Coraline, ParaNorman and The BoxTrolls. Such style of animation works to its advantage and comes off as a refreshing alternative to the 3D computerized films. It also works best in what makes this movie so captivating. I don’t think 3D computer work alone would make this film work as well.
This film is the directorial debut of Travis Knight, son of Nike CEO Phil Knight. He has actually been an animator with Laika during their first three features and now he takes the step into directing this time. He does an excellent debut job in directing. I was actually surprised to learn this is an original story. It was created by Shannon Tindle and Marc Haimes with the screenplay written by Haimes and Chris Butler. Very excellent and very true to spirit of common mythology. Vocal talents were also very good. Game Of Thrones actor Art Parkinson does a very good job in voicing Kubo and creating his personality. Charlize Theron captures the mysterious side of the Monkey excellently and Matthew McConaughey does a very good job in capturing Beetle in both his bravery and his idiocy. Dario Marianelli does a very good job with making the music fit the film. It captures the whimsy of it perfectly.
Kubo And The Two Strings is my favorite animated film of this summer. It had the best combination off all ingredients that make a great animated film from great animation to a great story to a great redeeming message. Sure, Sausage Party was fun in how it was the complete opposite of your typical family-friendly animated movie but Kubo is a reminder of why such movies win us over time after time. Also it helped me get my sanity back.
And that’s my review of animated movies of the summer. Three were strictly 3D computer animated while one mixed it with 3D stop-motion. Three were mostly family-friendly while one was obviously adults only and proud of it. Three were comedies while one was mostly a drama. Three were fresh new stories while one was a long-awaited sequel. All were entertaining in their own way and wouldn’t let you down. In addition the comedic animated movies had the box office success that eluded the live-action comedies of the summer. So yes, today’s moviegoers do have a sense of humor after all!
In conclusion, the animated movies were this summer’s top box office fare. If you’ve even seen one of the films I reviewed, you’d know why.
Interstellar is one of those movies one would not expect to be too big of a success especially with a November release but it has really caught on. I had my chance to find out why just a short time ago.
Normally I would go into an analysis of the plot but I decided to skip it since it was so widely seen by now. Instead I will focus on how the film did as a film and as a sci-fi movie.
I will admit that this is not an original concept. A story of a civilization in danger requiring a trip to save it has been done before. I haven’t seen a movie where it required a space trip to do so but I’m sure it’s been done. In order for a movie like Interstellar to work those themes, it had to have a well-thought out story. Especially with the situation where saving civilization meant travelling to another planet or even another galaxy. Already at the beginning we see aspects of a hopeless world with crop blight and dust storms. We see further chaos at the school as Murphy’s teachers teach liberal conspiracy theories as the truth and Tom’s grades are great for his career pursuit but not competitive enough to get into a university.
A story like this also would have to make the time delay between space and earth work rather than look stupid and schlocky. Even for a space mission that’s doomed from the start to succeed, it has to be well-written and thought out with precision. One element that was rightfully included was the human element of the film. Cooper was to go on a mission to preserve the human race from a future of doom. It’s a trip where he ages one month for every seven years humans on earth age. It’s Cooper’s connection with his family over the spans of time–especially with Murph– that keeps the focus on why this mission has to be a success. It’s at the very end where Cooper who appears not to have aged a bit finally meets up with Murphy, elderly and on her deathbed surrounded by her family, that we see why this mission was so important. Even the images where Cooper talks with Tom and sees his grandson is an element that shows why this mission is necessary and why they have to succeed even when it seems all hope is lost.
The mission itself had to be smartly written from launch to activity to failures to battles and to returning to Earth in order for this film to be successful. The inclusion of TARS had to work. He can have his humorous moments but he can’t come off looking ridiculous as if he was trying to be a rip-off of C3P0 or Johnny Five. Also outer space and the terrain of the other planets had to look like a world unlike any other. That’s what makes a space movie: the ability to thrill as well as capture people’s imagination.
Overall, this is what Christopher Nolan had to do both as director and co-writer along with his brother Jonathan in order to make a film like this work. They not only had to show the hopeless state of the world but also make the mission work out even with its doomed failings and it had to keep Cooper’s connection with this family on earth while this aging gap was happening along the way. They had to deliver a film that was smart but also entertaining and mesmerizing like a film about space travel should be. They succeeded. Having a mission that was smartly planned out, making the staggered time lapsing happen and keeping Cooper connected with his family a galaxy away is what made this film not only work but win over audiences. It shouldn’t really be all that surprising that a smart sci-fi thriller should come from Christopher Nolan. He showed he can do a thriller that’s both intelligent and a box office winner with Inception. He does it again here.
The excellence of the film is not just that of Jonathan and Christopher Nolan. It also involved great acting from Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain and even minor performances from Casey Affleck, John Lithgow and Matt Damon. I’ve seen better acting from all of them in the past but they all did very well here. Newcomer Mackenzie Foy was also very good in portraying the daughter with her love for her father and her anger for him.
Other standouts of the film were the top notch visual effects. A space movie is supposed to capture people’s imaginations and take the audience to a different world and it succeeded here. The cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema delivered and the music from Hans Zimmer added to the feel and experience of the film.
Interstellar is a sci-fi movie that’s both imaginative and intelligent. It combines a smart story with a dazzling space mission and comes out a winner.
It’s funny that when the original Godzilla first took the world by storm back in 1954, who would have thought it would ‘inspire’ two remakes? One was back in 1998 and the other was just last month. But how do they fare as entertainment?
For the record, I have not seen the original Japanese version of Godzilla. This movie comparison is based from what I have witnessed in the two remakes and their entertainment value. In fact even as I read the story of the original movie, I won’t compare it to the stories of the other two on whether it’s ‘true to the original.’
Some of you may remember the 1998 remake starring Matthew Broderick, Hank Azaria and Michael Lerner. I remember it well too. One thing I remember most about the movie is that it relied too much on the special effects and action moments. That is probably the areas where it most delivered. Elsewhere it completely went downhill. At first it seemed like the right thing to hire Independence Day writer/director Roland Emmerich as director and co-writer along with Dean Devlin. However what the audience received as far as a story turned out to be a lot of ridiculous fluff. The story was typical and cliched. It stars off as a lizard-like monster is making its way to New York. A Japanese man knows it was warped that way by nuclear testing. Meanwhile in the Big Apple, Audrey, a news reporter who’s too nice to succeed over her backstabbing assistant meets her ex-boyfriend Nick, who’s now an agent. Once Godzilla attacks New York, everyone’s involved. Nick tried to get the case solved, the armed forces try to kill it, Audrey tries to get a big break out of it and win Nick back. The acting was very stockish and added to the ridiculousness of the movie. Even casting Maria Pitillo as Audrey turned out to be a bad choice because it made her look too ditzy and bimbonic, almost like a Minnie Mouse persona. Overall it was a ‘quantity not quality’ picture. It’s no wonder it was nominated for five Razzies including Worst Picture and won two including Pitillo for Worst Actress. Even today I cringe whenever I remember scenes from that piece of idiocy.
The craziest thing about it was its huge marketing campaign. The film featured a CD which hit platinum and spawned a #4 hit for P. Diddy (then known as Puiff Daddy) with Jimmy Page ‘Come With Me.’ It also featured songs from some of the top hitmakers at the time like Green Day, The Wallflowers, Rage Against the Machine, Jamiroquai and the Foo Fighters. Taco Bell contributed $20 million to the campaign and even featured a special meal advertised by the Taco Bell chihuahua. There were even Godzilla toys marketed by Trendmaster which included a 11-inch Godzilla and a 22-inch Godzilla. So overall it was an overly hyped up movie intended to content for top box office honors. The hype machine behind Godzilla was spoofed in a Sprite commercial the following year shown in movie theatres where Hollywood execs are discussing marketing the movie ‘Death Slug’ with the script not even completed. The movie did succeed in making the Top 10 box office hits of the year with $136.3 million but it was only slightly over the $130 it cost to make and market. Internationally was slightly better with an additional $242.7 million. Congratulations, boys. Your hype-machine paid off.
One thing to note is that the movie ended with a hint of a possible sequel coming. Fortunately it did not happen. Another couple things to note: Maria Pitillo retired from acting a few years later and Roland Emmerich would write and direct another piece of idiocy in The Day After Tomorrow.
This summer came with the release of a new remake of Godzilla. Funny how there are a lot of movie remakes done these past few years; some remakes of movies done just ten years earlier. Before it was released, I kept thinking to myself: “I hope it’s not like that hideous remake from 1998.” When I saw it was certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes (73% it cureently stands at), I decided to give it a chance.
This features a new story with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Joe, the lead protagonist with Elizabeth Olsen playing his wife, Bryan Cranston playing his father, and Ken Watanabe playing the Japanese doctor. The story starts with a hydrogen bomb trying to kill a mutated creature in 1954. In 1999 a nuclear power plant in Japan ruptures which Joe’s father attemted to control. Fifteen years later, Joe, one of the sons of a rescue worker from that accident, is a naval officer living in San Francisco with his family because he was arrested in Japan for entering the disaster area trying to get the truth. Joe witnessed his father die as they discovered a large winged creature. It’s later learned from Naval officers the attempt to kill Godzilla forgot there were eggs and two hatched. One of the children has grown and is on the prowl. Not only that, two other large creatures names MUTO with the potential of mating. Godzilla first arrives in Hawaii and causes a devastating tsunami. The male mutant creature fights Godzilla temporarily while the female wreaks havoc in Vegas. The MUTO arrive in San Francisco and Joe is separated from his wife and son in the mayhem. Then a sign the two MUTO will mate as the two make a nest out of submarines and nuclear warheads in downtown San Francisco. However some in the military feel Godzilla might stop the MUTO. Once Godzilla hits Frisco, he battles the MUTO smashing the male and breathing fire into the female’s face. Joe is reunited with his wife and son. Godzilla is thought to have died in the ocean but he returns to the sea with the media labeling him ‘king of the monsters.’
Unlike the 1998 remake, it doesn’t try to be a comedy-drama. Instead the story is much more dramatic, way more sensible and way better acted. Both the actors and writer Max Borenstein worked to deliver a movie that was very watchable for both the action scenes and the story lines. It actually worked in being a thriller. There were a few times in which I was waiting for a ‘fluff moment’ to happen. Okay, I’ll admit I hadn’t fully recovered from the phobia I had after the original remake. I found it very hard to remember a time during the film when I was left displeased. I won’t say that I was head over heels astounded with the movie but I was impressed with it to say the least. Oh, did I say that the Godzilla here looks way scalier too?
I will admit there were times in which I was confused by the story or wondered if it was getting confusing. Both previous Godzilla movies strictly focused on Godzilla the creature in which he’s killed at the end. This was bizarre as Godzilla was not the only mutant creature but there were two others. I thought that was awkward at first. However I will give the writers and directors credit for developing a new unique story to the Godzilla franchise. Also good to see is that this new take to the story didn’t come off as corny as it could have ended up as.
I won’t really say that this new Godzilla movie ‘did Godzilla right’ in comparison to the 1998 tripeload. Mainly because I haven’t seen the 1954 original and also when looking back, I think of areas it could have been done better. Nevertheless I will say this remake ‘did Godzilla better,’ way better than the 1998 schmaltzfest. And the best thing is there was no hype-fest with a CD or with a restaurant deal. If you remember back in the late-90’s, it was common for fast food restaurants to take part in the summer movie hype-fest by promoting movies with special meals that included images and ads of the movies on the packaging. I still remember Burger King doing promotions for 1999’s Wild Wild West and 2009’s Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen: two over hyped dribblefests. Nowadays I don’t see restaurants hyping movies up anymore or not as often. That’s a relief. Let the summer movies sell themselves! As for the biz of this new Godzilla, it cost $160 million to make, was hyped up way less obviously and has done well at the box office so far with almost $195 million to date and still stands in the box office Top 10 at #9 with $1.9 million last weekend.
The most recent Godzilla movie is a much better remake than the 1998 fluff-piece in almost every way. Goes to show you that less can be more even during the summer movie season.
Oh, I’m the drug dealer? No, you’re the fuckin’ drug dealer. I mean, goddamn, people are dyin’. And y’all are up there afraid that we’re gonna find an alternative without you.