The Dinner Guest.
First up is Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, a biopic on the final years of JMW Turner, starring Timothy Spall in the titular role. Turner was a famed artist in the 19th century, deeply engrossed in studying and capturing landscape light – but sincerely speaking, lacking time, I'm not gonna delve into a side-study about the man himself. I just never knew about him until I heard this movie was gonna come out, so let's talk about the movie's plot and what it had to show.
Turner's an established, esteemed painter throughout England, although he's not someone who lets his fame and accolades get to him. While he's got an ego to warrant an unorthodox, commanding behavior among his peers, he prefers to live a reserved life, devoted to his craft. However, somewhere between his unruliness and his solitude, he lets something slip every so often, becoming increasingly burdensome to him. He's got some issues unresolved and undisclosed – issues he'd rather keep that way.
I'll always be grateful to Mike Leigh for introducing me to Sally Hawkins with Happy-Go-Lucky. That movie's so great. She's so fantastic in that role. And there was Another Year, a similar film about the ups and downs in life. It's pretty good, too. That's how I found out about the way this man's modus operandi, the way he lets improvisation shape characters and the script, making for deeply emotionally rooted films. Both films are so good – and so is last year's Gloria, a film I found some parallels to Mike Leigh's style.
But here, I don't think the style's working as much. This movie feels constrained compared to his two previous efforts. Maybe it's because he's working with such lovely sets, costume designs, and a lensing so rich I'll touch in a little while in more detail, that there's not a whole lot of room for improvisation. It could also be that Mr. Turner was a rather lonesome guy who kept mostly to himself, much unlike Leigh's previous leads.
It's just the man painting, studying some landscapes, and dealing with some people for whatever ends. Some of them are after him because of some old, unclaimed business. Others are looking for his help. Others are clients, wanting to buy his paintings or commission something from him. Others are fellow painters who have a particular opinion of him as a person. I don't know much about the process behind this film, but no matter what, I think that it's a bit of a dry and uneventful film. No arcs or conflicts of note.
But that's not say the movie's boring. There's enough personality here to offset that. Timothy Spall's delivering a pretty good performance as a man who longs for impenetrability. He'll only keep nearby those he truly loves, and the rest are very much organized in how little he's willing to share with them – from mere orders to leading a secret, aliased life. It's a rather physical performance too, complete with snorts, gags, heavy coughs, and all sort of bodily sounds for nearly every emotional reaction. Also, I mentioned before the lensing by Dick Pope being particularly good, so here we go. It's nothing flashy or overly produced, but it's got the right thing a movie like this needed. When a biopic on a famous guy gets done, I focus on how they describe that person's creative process – the one moment of inspiration that triggered everything. Turner was a man who studied light intimately, so Pope's showing that with some gorgeous landscapes shots of striking hues and shades. Indoors, he's focusing on volumetric light to a really elegant degree – light coming through a window has never looked this good.
Still, if you're not fascinated by Leigh, Turner, or cinematography, not a whole lot going on here.
One of this year's most exciting and talk-about films from debuting directors must be Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, a thriller about a man with a serious plan.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a young man who's desperate for a job. Although he's been as “professional” as possible, he's been out of luck, resorting to thievery to get by. One night while driving, he spots a cam crew recording a fiery car crash, and after hearing the particularities of the job from one of the guys, he gets inspired to take a shot at being a stringer for the news channels, delivering them the most engaging (read: morbid) crime footage right after they happened. He gets the bare minimum supplies he needs to get started, and with some luck and manipulation he finds the proper footing he needs to have leverage over his competition and his employers. He'll do whatever it takes to go upwards from there.
There can't be enough praises for Gyllenhaal. He's amazing in this film, with a piercing stare and a permanently calm demeanor – he's channeling some Hannibal Lecter mixed with the austere intensity and drive of, well, Driver from the film Drive. He's far more talky than Ryan Gosling's scorpion-jacketed character, however. He's a masterful manipulator. A very precise liar, always saying only what the listener wants or must hear, and keeping his own feelings to himself and only when he's alone. He's a man with the tightest mask around – a mask most won't even notice, or even mind, he's wearing.
Riz Ahmed and Rene Russo play Lou's professional contacts. Ahmed's his employee, a man in seemingly direr straits than Lou was at the beginning of the film, doing his best to adapt to this crazy man's crazy (and sometimes, straight-up life-risking) work ethics. Russo, meanwhile, is by name and money, his employer. She's the director at a news show, eager to show whatever gross bullshit Lou's bringing her just to make the ratings go up. Soon it'll be revealed that she's not in much of a position of power against Lou. It'll all feel like if Lou had everything mapped out right from the get-go, the instant he saw those camera men recording the fiery accident I mentioned earlier.
However, if there's something working against the film is precisely that gross bullshit. The movie's thesis a brutally honest one about the morbidity in today's news. It's no lie the newscasters rather to focus on crime, violence, and murder, instead of anything else that's less grim and shocking. I eat lunch while watching the news, and it's getting increasingly difficult to not eat while they're talking about that – I mean, look: I'm not much of a sport guy, but I rather learn who's, I dunno, 7th at the Premiere League after a random match between two teams I only know by name, than to eat to some robbery, manslaughter or murder with grieve-stricken, still shocked interviewees. This film taps into that very clearly, especially once Lou gets going in his business, but I feel it kind of gets out of hand. Not only the stuff Lou's delivering is absurdly graphic, but the score played while he's getting inspired to get a dramatic shot, mixed with the overly positive feedback Russo's character's giving him... makes it all feel unreal. Some characters will interject and demand tact from them, but it's all brushed aside in a little too convenient kind of way.
But this is not a movie to take super seriously, in any case. It's a world of zero sensibilities, of nighttime vultures. It'll revel on the darker aspects of society with an unflinching pace and an unblinking stare. Give it a watch – it may be a bit overboard, but it's terrifyingly so.
Up next is Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Still Alice. Based on the eponymous novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, it stars Julianne Moore as Alice, a highly esteemed and accomplished linguistics professor whose life takes a turn for the worse as she's diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. She decides to face it with a resourceful dignity, while her family do her best to aid and support her, but nevertheless, as it's the case with those afflicted by it, it's becoming a losing battle.
I wish I had a lot more to talk about the movie's plot, but honestly there's not a whole lot to mention here. It's a Julianne Moore vehicle through and through. Luckily, it's THE Julianne Moore at work here – and she kills it. She goes through a very legitimate, heartbreaking transformation, empowered by a subtle but really perceptible physical evolution. Her gaze goes from focused and always ready to distant and unaware, but these adjectives fail to properly convey her metamorphosis. There's also speech and relations and posture and behavior and memory all decaying in balance, so to convincingly portray a woman suffering the disease without having one side be more significant than the other. Her acting here escapes all clichés.
But going back to the plot, yeah. It's a little bare bones. Moore's doing more for the film than the other way around. The script will tackle her condition as episodically as possible, focusing on particular challenges instead of exploring the impact it's having on her and her family. It's more a film about “what's she doing now”, and not so much one of “what's going on in this house”. She'll initially device different ways to keep her memory as ready as possible, but then it'll be a bit too much about the failures. It hits really hard a point of no return with Alice. But look, I'm not trying to come across as insensitive – if anything, I'll admit I'm ignorant in this subject. I don't know how severe Alzheimer really is. I don't know if it's a gradual condition or if in a really short period of time, people get a really sharp drop in capacities. Maybe both cases are possible. If you know about it, feel free to share your knowledge with me.
Still, what I'm trying to say, is that the movie feels a bit too exploitative on Moore. I mean, just the fact that's she's a linguistics professor makes it all more forceful. She's forgetting words, you see. Complex words at first, but then, normal, everyday ones. A bit too much on the nose.
It becomes a little too much about her devolving failures and less about her interactions and the attitudes of her loved ones in the thick of her condition. Alice's husband John (played by Alec Baldwin... surfacing some old, sweet 30 Rock memories of Jack and Nancy) will be supportive to an extent, as his career's still healthy and he can't afford a year off despite Alice's insistence. One of their kids, Lydia (played by Kirsten Stewart), will be more curious about it, but her testy behavior will certainly push some buttons with her older siblings. Her relationship with her parents is a bit of a work-in-progress, as her goals and dreams of acting make her a bit of a black sheep in her family, though certainly, it's a title more self-imposed than anything.
If anything, Alice's relationship to Lydia will give you something to chew and reflect, but it's not enough to offset all the hurdles the script imposes on Alice. They end up becoming more of a breather than pieces of depth and introspection. But hey, if you've read the reviews so far, this may be it: Julianne Moore may be FINALLY winning an Oscar for this performance. How cool is that! And it's a fantastic performance, quite awards-worthy no less! I just wish this performance was used for a better film. Something should've happened for The Kids Are Alright, too.
Why am I jumping to these questions instead of going straight to a plot summary? Why am I talking about this new trilogy as a whole instead of talking about the singular, concluding entry? Pretty simple: there's not a whole lot to talk about the Battle of the Five Armies. There's some conflict, it gets solved, Bilbo goes back home. I don't think I'm entering any spoiler alert territory given the fact that it's an ancient book and audiences familiarized with the Hobbit film series (hell, not even the original Lord of the Rings one) should be aware that Bilbo makes it back home just fine. An Unexpected Journey starts with a flash forward, complete with an Elijah Wood cameo.
But this movie... this movie just destroyed the illusion. This movie just didn't even need to exist. Remember how the second movie ended? It was a pretty good ending, wasn't it? It doesn't even matter. Don't make any big ideas – nothing major from the second film is actually continued here. Said Battle is over gold and a couple of heirlooms. And maybe, a mountain. That's it. And those Five Armies? I counted three at best. But then you've got Legolas just being a broken motherfucker and tearing the fabric of reality with every arrow he shoots. Look, I'm not being a nerd here: this could've been a Narnia, a Harry Potter, a Hunger Games, a film from any other book series. Its problems are simply structural. Compared to the other entries, this one feels fanfic-y. A filler.
I'll just say this: this movie might as well been called The Hobbit Revolutions. It's that bad. It's nothing but war and fight scenes with a 15% share for plot at best. Might as well be even worse since you can feel at all times how low the stakes are, at all times. They're fighting for scraps. And when I say “they”, I'm not even talking about OUR heroes, the ones we've followed for an entire journey. They basically sit this one out. It's a complete disservice to all the hype Desolation of Smaug brought.
So, back to those earlier questions: was the split worth it? I'll be honest here and say... no, but something could've been done. Maybe it could've been split in two films: you just gotta toss this one aside. Or rather, no. Forget that: just make it all one film. 20% of Journey, 75% of Smaug, 5% of Five Armies, and you'd be set. It would probably make for Jackson's longest film ever, but who knows. I'm also trimming a lot of padding here. It would probably make for a more engaging, rewarding individual sit instead of three uneven ones.
I just hope that with this, they stop splitting books into parts. I feel like I've gotta cut and paste my rant against Mockingjay Part 1 to put it here, because I feel this one's a worse offender. No attempt to close the franchise was made here: it's braking at a snails pace, never reaching a high point. Still, I can't say it's one of the worst films of the year. It's largely harmless by itself, but grouped with its predecessor, it's simply criminal. Just watch it if you're a completionist.
And before I forget, I finally saw one of these movies in 48 FPS and in 3D. It's super jarring when characters move around. Hopefully the technology will improve to make it worthwhile.
Up next is Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, one of the most critically acclaimed indie films of the year. It's a modern age indie, as a matter of fact, as it was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, no less. I haven't seen many of these crowdfunded, but so far, this one's is easily my favorite so far among them. Let's check it out.
The movie tells the story of Dwight. On first glance he looks like a homeless guy, scavenging around and entering empty homes to get by, and living in his blue car, ruined by rust and bullet holes. It's not entirely clear why did he end in such a condition, but none of that will matter. He'll learn the murderer of his parents, a man named Wade, will be released from prison. He gets going right away and sets things in motion – a hunt is on, but it's never too clear who's the hunter and who's the hunted.
I don't feel comfortable telling more about this film because it's a narrative snowball – you start pretty simple and straight-forward, but let it roll for a while and you'll see. It's quite an intense game of cat-and-mouse between Dwight's and Wade's families, as both sides have their own take on Wade's innocence. It's a long story that only now is getting addressed, albeit violently.
Quite violently, indeed. While it's not on a level of, say, I Saw the Devil and its torrential goriness, it's just as unflinching and unforgiving as that. The characters are aware they're living on borrowed time, so they better make the most out of it by ending it all the way they see fit. Guns and blades will have the final word here. And what makes it all more shocking is the mood around this hunt: all the characters here feel like it's too late for apologies or bargains. It'll only grow more merciless and precise, as the shock of first blood will soon be forgotten with a second, a third, and successive kills.
Macon Blair as Dwight is quite solid in his timid, learning-the-basics way of getting around. The times will force him to be resourceful and cunning to survive, but you can feel something of his old life in his naiveté and lingering compassion. He's not a worldly man – this will be the first time he handles a gun, for instance; and he seriously believes that by evening things out between the two households an agreement will be reached, but evidence will keep showing him otherwise. He'll also be far more forgiving than anyone involved in this deathmatch, as he'll try to find out their side of their story to understand their motivations before deciding whether they should be killed or not. He'll grow to feel detached from fear, as if it was his destiny, and the Cleland family's destiny, to do all this – even if it wasn't a destiny directly chosen by themselves. They're the effect to someone else's cause.
However, I feel the movie kind of dies down at the end. The film will very much wait for the final act to arrive, stationing Dwight at a final stage until the last enemy arrive. The confrontation will be just as grim and intense as the ones before, exchanging threats between cautious mercy begs. However, it'll go a step too far, I think, going all in, losing the intimacy of revenge in favor of straight-up bloodlust. It's a decent finale anyways, but the subtlety had already left by then. In any case, the final shot is a great one, bringing everything together quite elegantly.
Still, overall, it's a thrilling sit, always engaging with mood and clever, out of nowhere bolts of violence. You'll certainly feel as if someone could sneak in and get the best of you from a hidden corner when watching it. Check it out.
My friends and the Internet around me were pretty hyped about Chad Stahelski's John Wick, an actioner starring Keanu Reeves in the titular role. Let's find out why – and if they were right.
John Wick's a man who's grieving the death of his wife to illness, but after the funeral, and as he's trying to adjust to a lonely life, he gets something in the mail his wife sent him before she died: aware she wouldn't be around for much longer, she sent him a puppy so he'd have something to fill her void. Something he can love and take care of, as she put it. He becomes hopeful again, taking the puppy everywhere with him as he slowly grasps the basics of dog ownership.
However, one day he crosses path with a punk from a Russian mob. The kid wants to buy his sweet Chevy, but John's declining his offer. The kid and two other friends break in his house later that night and steal his car, but first they incapacitated him and killed his puppy. In grievance again, he's going to make them pay for all damages. And you know what? John knows this kid, but this kid doesn't know him. John used to work for his mob ringleader dad, in fact. The dad knows they're fucked because it's John fucking Wick. It'll be an all-out war against this one man just to protect their lives.
First things first: while I wrote two paragraphs about this movie's plot, I gotta say two paragraphs feel like a lot when talking about John Wick. Call it a distillation of the genre so the tropes are as pure and intense as possible (more on this later), or a story so bare-bones it's got just the minimum to be considered “a story” – whichever the case, textually there's not a whole lot going on. John Wick's a cool guy, living in a cool house, he wears a cool jacket, and he drives cool cars. His cool dog gets killed, and things get uncool for everyone involved. That's another way of telling this movie's premise, despite the jokey tone.
But when I called it a distillation I said it because if anything, it's a good thing it makes the plot aside as much as possible. It allows to take the biggest advantage possible to show off John Wick's talents and feats without entering into any pace slowdowns. The ringleader basically implies they're as powerful as they are only because John Wick took down every other competitor they had. With a resume as noteworthy as that, the movie better not fuck around and prove John Wick's awesomeness. And boy, the way it proves it... it's all so satisfyingly painful. I just want to see this movie again with a kill count because at times I just lost track of how many dudes John shot in the face in the span of a single take. But it goes beyond being just a deeply crafted choreography, as it's also strategically precise in a clever, rarely seen fashion: there's a way of doing things here. Even in the thick of a sprawling, non-stop gunfight. John Wick will opt for non-lethal or unconventional shots only to ensure an execution afterwards. Take this one scene, for instance: John Wick runs a guy with his car, and he shoots him while the dude's rolling on his roof and he's falling off the other end of the vehicle. That's what I mean with it being a distillation: they saved on story, but they spent it all on violent, creative techniques.
So, in the end... does it live up to the hype? I'm gonna say yes, but reservedly. The action's great if you're into that, but they sold it to me as some sort of Wanted, or Now You See Me kind of movie: one that's so joyfully ridiculous it's amazing. I wanted to agree with that, but the setting, as mentioned, is sort of weak on purpose. That's a bit of a deal-breaker for me. The action may be top notch, but a promise just as outlandish would've sealed the deal. Still, it's pretty fun as is.
Another year, another movie of his. It's Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, a romantic comedy involving clashing ideas of science and faith, of certainty and miracles – but basically, it's all about lies, and who's the biggest liar around.
It's 1928, and audiences across Europe are fascinated with the performances of the illusionist Wei Ling Soo, who's actually a white man in oriental costumes and makeup (it's 1928, “racist” wasn't a thing yet) named Stanley Crawford with a really cranky, ultra-analytical behavior towards everything and everyone. One night he's approached by an old colleague of his who's always admired his craftsmanship as a magician. He presents him with a bit of a challenge he couldn't crack: an family in France is enraptured with a medium and clairvoyant named Sophie Baker. Fearing the medium may be a phony who's taking advantage of them, the colleague checked out one of her séances hoping to find anything that could expose her as a fraud – but not only he ends up coming empty-handed, she seems to be so good at it he ends up believing she actually tapped into the paranormal and contacted the spirits of the deceased, revealing all sorts of anecdotes and facts about them she couldn't have possibly known about. Unable to figure her out but still wanting to, he enlists his mentor Stanley to help him.
I had a lot to like in this movie – starring Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, I was already hooked, as they're two of my favorite actors around. Woody Allen helming this project was a also a big plus, especially given the really high scores achieved recently with Midnight in Paris (my #1 film of 2011) and Blue Jasmine (#11 of 2013). But ever since Vicky Cristina Barcelona (the film which saw him return to the spotlight with an Oscar for Penélope Cruz), he's been on-and-off. On with Vicky, off with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. On with Midnight in Paris, off with To Rome With Love. Finally, he was on with Blue Jasmine... meaning he's off with Magic in the Moonlight. Decidedly off.
It's quite a petty script. Stanley's quite a joyless man. The movie keeps mentioning he's always been a stick-in-the-mud, always married to scientific process as the one way to arrive to conclusions about anything – so to have him nitpicking everyone around him is gonna be a delightful treat, right? Sophie's more charming and certainly has a lot more going on, as she's debating accepting a marriage proposal from a man who's enamored with her and is willing to give her every little thing she desires. However, the reason for why we get to know her – her talents as a medium, and whether she's the real deal or not – are pretty quickly sidelined once we get used to the idea she may very well be all-knowing and all-seeing. Stanley (and the movie) gives up rather quickly and that's a shame, considering there was something to be had in a battle of the wits between a magician and a spiritualist.
If anything, and with the romantic comedy genre involved, it'll all lead into a liar's reveal: the (overall disappointing) truth will come out, feelings will be hurt, they'll think about it for far too much time, and then they'll be together. But with someone as stubborn as Stanley it all rings as something far too forced. No matter how much he ponders about it (because he'll go at it for a needlessly long while), it will never feel like he's reaching a conclusion of his own choosing.
It's a weak film overall, with brief instances of goodness and comedy, but it's just too self-satisfied to commit to either comedy or introspection. It's not a terrible movie considering all the talent aboard, but it's one that's not going anywhere noteworthy with them.
However, one of them's been killed in combat. They get a replacement in Norman, a young typist who's barely been a soldier for eight weeks. He has no useful combat or machinery skills – and his teammates won't let him have it any easier. With shock and reluctance he'll go through a baptism of fire, as he's ordered to kill every enemy in sight, regardless of their age or health condition. He'll struggle with the pace of war.
Still, after some bonding time with Don and finding himself a reason to fight for, he'll open some space for himself within the Fury brotherhood. However, it's possible he managed to do that a bit too late, or barely just in time, as the enemy will soon corner them in fearsomely overwhelming numbers.
If I started by mentioning End of Watch it's because Fury employs some similar narrative structures as Ayer's previous film – granted, we're not surrounded by cameras everywhere, but it's definitely a movie that intertwines the naturalism of brotherhood with the intensity of procedure. They're movies about friendship in violent scenarios, and how they cope with the surrounding darkness through commitment to their duty and their companionship. They're very humane films that shed a positive light to jobs uncommonly regarded as nice or safe.
But End of Watch has something this movie's missing: dead hours. That movie benefited incredibly from having their characters sitting on their police car doing nothing, as it gave ample room for them to be themselves. But they weren't at war. The characters in Fury can't afford their same freedoms. The film makes pretty clear that not only they could die any second from a stray bullet or an ambush attack, but they would die violently. This movie is the Omaha beach scene from Saving Private Ryan running for two hours. It's an panoramic view of a landscape littered with dead bodies creatively, horrifyingly mangled and shot-through and liquefied. There's little room for interactions when war consumes your daily life, and this movie suffers from that. It's not that they ever come across as complete strangers to each other, is that their characters feel largely bland because they're constantly fighting the enemy.
But the action scenes are at least well made, richly focused on strategy and cooperation. The orders, the motions, the hits, the bullets flying by, it's all makes for a supremely engaging battle choreography, although the final confrontation feels a bit lackluster. Once again it takes a page from End of Watch by putting the Fury crew in a battle too big for them. You still gotta have a climactic finale, but here it all feels a bit too easy given the numbers, resulting in a messy, sprawling skirmish. And the movie will immediately finish once it's all done.
Give it a look if you're into WW2 films. It stays far from any lows, but it rarely reaches any highs.
So here's one I sadly haven't seen in quite a while. It's John Carney's Begin Again. The world was introduced to him with his emotionally poetic folk song of a movie Once. He made a movie only released in his native Ireland ever since, to then return to the big stage just now. For all the delay, at least he got a budget increase this time: 8 million vs. the 150.000 bucks that Once costed. Damn.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a washed-up, alcoholic music producer and executive living in New York. He's been estranged from his family for some years now, and he's just been fired from the record label he co-founded. However, he gets inspired at a bar when he sees Gretta (Keira Knightley) perform a song of hers. Immediately he tries his best to get her “signed”, truly believing she's got what it takes to stand out among the overly marketed, identity-free crowd. She's raw, emotional, highly lyrical and all that. But those sort of evocative adjectives must come from somewhere. We find out that Gretta once dated for quite some time the one and only Dave Kohl (played by the one and only Adam Levine), a rising music superstar who's taking the industry by storm with his “song from the movie”. Emphasis on “once dated”.
She'll take a chance with Dan to make her kind of music, which will give her some much needed purpose and creative confidence to stand up to Dave, whose popularity is only increasing.
Since it's a Carney project a special consideration must be had with the soundtrack. Once's soundtrack was gorgeously vulnerable, and this film is just as based upon music as that one. Gregg Alexander from New Radicals worked on the songs this time around, and... they're pretty good. They're a solid, pop-y listen. It never reaches the rusty frankness of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova, but it's catchy and earnest. To make Gretta's album they employ a tactic that may sound overly gimmicky, but I can't say it's a bad idea. It certainly worked for Once and they weren't conscious about it. I just want to listen to this film's soundtrack just to see how much of that gimmick adds to her music.
Also, while we're talking about this film's music, Keira Knightley's voice is quite lovely. If this acting thing doesn't work out for this Academy Award nominated person, she could seriously give it a shot. Adam Levine also has some songs here, and he's fine. He still sounds like himself, but what are you gonna do about that. His newly seen acting skills are quite decent, too.
So, about the movie itself... um... it's not up to par with Once. But a lot had to happen to make that miracle happen twice, and a bigger budget certainly wasn't gonna set it on stone. A big problem this movie has is that it sweeps under the rug nearly every problem the characters face. Financial, creative, personal problems... they're all solved within seconds and with as little follow-up as possible. It makes the movie feel unsatisfactorily easy, especially considering the ultra-indie standards Gretta and Dan have imposed to themselves. Even if their solutions aren't far-fetched (they're bare-bones, but you could say it's doable), it all feels like they're magically solving each step of the creative process. CeeLo Green's participation in this film is a testament to that: he only shows up to finance their endeavors and then he's gone.
It's a movie much more concerned with the music than the plot. However, it's not a bad plot or anything, they never go on a stupid, careless limb, although it's taking the backseat compared to the music. At least it reaches an honest success doing so. It's a soundtrack worth your money.
Disney bought Marvel, right? Whatever happened to that? Well, Don Hall and Chris Williams's Big Hero 6 happened so far! But as I'm writing this, I'm just learning that this film is actually based on a Marvel property. I seriously had no idea about that especially considering Marvel's presentation animation isn't seen anywhere during the early credits. Anyways, what is it about?
Hiro's a kid living in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (yeah). He's a prodigy at robotics, and he uses his knowledge to profit at the local clandestine robot fighting rings with his own creations which easily overpower anyone else's. His older brother Tadashi, hoping to veer him away from that lifestyle, shows him his university and the stuff each of his friends are working on – including his own stuff: a self-inflating nurse robot named Baymax, programmed to heal and treat all sorts of patients nearby. Getting inspired, he decides to apply by showing an original creation at an admittance expo: if he impresses, he's in.
He kills it, but before he could taste the fruits of his success, tragedy strikes. He loses his brother and his creation to a fire at the university. He's easily admitted, but he's not feeling like going to classes after all this.
But a random event re-starts Baymax nursing protocol and Hiro finds some unwanted company on it. Baymax's aware his wounds aren't physical ones, but mental ones, so it tries its best to make sure Hiro's all-around healthy once again – but in the process, they end up uncovering a conspiracy regarding Hiro's lost invention.
This movie is a smile from beginning to end. It's such a creative and ingenious ride, so peppy and joyous – yet at the same time it tackles some dark themes Disney rarely, if ever, has touched upon. And it's all great. With this film, Disney can not just say they've made one of the most visually creative superhero flicks in recent memory, but they can also say they've made the only one you'd sincerely label as cute. Baymax's so charming in its adherence to limitations and purpose.
However, the film's not one I'd say it's wholly original. At least, I can't say it feels so. While I saw it I kept having flashbacks to other films like Iron Man, Avengers, How to Train Your Dragon, Terminator 2, and so on. Reference and allusions aren't rare occurrences, but something about this film that it's Marvel and it's Disney makes it all seem much more apparent – they birthed a bunch of tropes all those movies employed, after all. Still, Big Hero 6 uses them rather well, always to a laugh or a good reaction. I knew it was borrowing from places, but not wasting anything. It kept a healthy, smart pace through and through.
But f I have a major gripe with this film comes from the villain. He looks cool and so intimidating with his overwhelming powers, he's got great fight and chase scenes and all... but his motivations, and the way he attempts to achieve his own goals... they look like stuff he could've done quietly and peacefully by himself. But in the end he comes across as a complete, irredeemable bastard, especially considering the lengths he's willing to go to make sure his ends are met. Still, in the end, it's a pleasant, lovely film you should check out. Baymax's mightly adorable, and the human heroes are all quite sparky and creative, each of them with sweet superpowers you'd wish you could have at hand while playing a videogame. Don't skip it.
Keeping with the robot motif, it's Takashi Yamazaki and Ryūichi Yagi's Stand by Me Doraemon, an animated film based on the manga and animé series by the Fujiko Fujio team. It's one of the quintessential cartoon characters in Japan, entertaining audiences around the world for over 50 years now, and now he gets the CGI animated film treatment.
This film follows the premise of the series rather closely. It's about this kid named Nobita, infamous in his neighborhood for his coward, crybaby and lazy attitude towards every hurdle life presents him. He flunks tests because he doesn't study, he gets bullied because he won't stand up for himself, and his crush doesn't really mind him that much because he doesn't have the guts to tell her how he feels about her. Should he follow this lifestyle, he'll lead an unhappy, miserable adult life.
However, to remedy this, his descendant from the far future shows up in his room with a blue robot cat named Doraemon, who's tasked to ensure Nobita grows successfully happy so his future descendants can enjoy the opportunities a wealthier, wiser Nobita would've given them. Stuck in the past until his objective is met, Doraemon helps Nobita with the many miraculous gadgets he holds in his chest pocket, which grant him the ability to fly, to become invisible, to bounce on clouds, all that and more.
But Nobita soon realizes his way to happiness may lie within resignation.
Yeah, even if it's a kids film, it goes really dark, I'd say. There's something suicidal in Nobita's path to happiness. For a scene or two, it gets really hopeless for the kid. But what's always been key in the Doraemon's series is Nobita's and Doraemon's friendship – Doraemon will passively, but always reluctantly help Nobita out. He'll give him a gadget he can use to overcome a situation, but things would always spin out of control because of Nobita's false sense of confidence. The lesson would always be to not depend on his gadgets to overcome his challenges, as they were meant to aid him only – otherwise, Doraemon would never be able to leave his side, and thus, he'd never return to his time.
The movie does well at showcasing the growing friendship between these two. It's a bit of a give-and-take between these two: Nobita's trying new stuff Doraemon has to show him, and Doraemon slowly sees an earnestness in him when he really puts his mind into something, a facet he'll do his dearest to protect.
But if you haven't seen this film's trailer, I'll say it's pretty clear even from there that the makers of this film WANT your tears. And from seeing the film... boy they don't give up on that. I'll say that it never feels like something forced, though. It's smart enough to not push it by manipulation, things will flow to let the emotional scenes happen naturally. But they just keep trying and trying, and if it didn't work for you the first time, it's not going to work the Nth time.
And it's seriously not going to work when the movie betrays itself at the end. Something happens that makes straight-up switches everything Doraemon and Nobita had worked on for so long. It comes out of nowhere and it makes no sense. It's just there to give itself a happy ending to the expense of Doraemon's purpose. The movie is nowhere near Top 10 material, but this bit just dragged the whole movie down. If you're fan of Doraemon, you could forgive it, but me? Nope.
Still in Japan, it's Isao Takahata's The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, the next-to-last Ghibli film before their doors are closed until who knows when. Next year it's When Marnie Was There and that'll be it. But let's enjoy the present, because it's quite generous this time around.
Based on a an old Japanese folk tale, it tells the story of a bamboo cutter who finds a mysterious, glowing stalk in the small reserve by his home. Inside the sprout there is a small, beautiful little girl who fits in his palm. Shocked and confused over this event, he takes her to his wife and suddenly the tiny girl becomes a normal-sized baby. The married couple think she must be a princess sent from heaven, and call her “Princess”, where as the neighborhood kids call her “Lil' Bamboo”, because she keeps growing and growing, to the point she becomes a free-spirited, quick-to-learn teenage girl within days. The bamboo cutter – her dad at this point -- find a couple more shining bamboos at his reserve. One contains a huge amount of gold, and the other shoots out delicate, elegant fabrics for clothing. The father's belief of Princess being an actual princess is strengthened to the point he travels to the capital to buy a mansion with the gold so she can reside with all the class and dignity royalty deserves. Princess's quite excited with her new home, but since she's considered a princess now, she'll have to behave as one, so he'll be partaking strict lessons to develop a sense of composure, poise and culture. Though she masters them quite quickly, she hates them, as she feels trapped in layers of clothing and makeup that severely restrain her. Once she comes of age, a priest comes by and names her “Princess Kaguya” out of the light and beauty she irradiates, a delicate sight that only brings a profound joy. But word of mouth about her soon spreads through the capital. She'll be put in positions she never asked for, but she'll try to handle them as they come, hoping to evade getting fully cornered by tradition and protocol, yearning the simpler life from before.
Takahata stays true to his style of filmmaking, of relaxed plots that veer into vignettes and postcards, constantly branching side stores from other side stories. They make for movies without much of a premise but it's never been his focus to tell a story as formally as possible. He's a man fascinated by the bigger picture, and how it affects the individuals populating it. This time around, and after such a long time off the director's chair, Takahata masters his narrative style in a sensational, intensely emotional style. Let's start with what's most evident: the art's just perfect. Rough and sketchy, but that makes it all the more delightfully organic. Characters with such elegant shapes and curves that would've been totally lost had they been given the normal high-quality treatment. You have to check this one out if you're into animation. Joe Hisashi's score's also just as rich, a highly evocative one, always acting as an invisible friend to Kaguya: someone who'll admire the lush green hills, and a shoulder to cry each time they get further away from her. But then there's the plot, and it's such a wonderful, melancholic tale about humanity and divinity, about decisions and fate. There's no villain here, she's not a hero either. Kaguya's put on tight spots by those who love her, but their love is undeniable. They want the best for her but there's something in between no one can figure out yet. Not even Kaguya herself. I should also point out that Kaguya is one of the greatest female character of recent cinema. She's got such a range, going from blissful freedom to painful endurance, and the while featuring such a rare, stern resolve to everything she does and feels. She's upfront, but never aggressive. She's like a bamboo, indeed.
It's such a wonderful film. I was a teary mess by the end. And it's even more painful considering it's far and away the best Ghibli film since Spirited Away. One more and that's it. Sad times.
And that's gonna be it. Once again, I wish you a kickass 2015! See ya after the fireworks.