Isle of Dogs (2018)

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I used to sleep on a lamb’s wool beanbag next to an electric space heater. That’s my territory, I’m an ‘indoor’ dog.  By executive decree all the canine pets of Megasaki City are exiled to a vast garbage-dump called Trash Island following an outbreak of flu. 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin) sets off alone in a miniature Junior-Turbo Prop and flies across the river in search of his bodyguard-dog, Spots (Liev Schreiber). There, with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends led by Chief (Bryan Cranston) and including Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray), King (Bob Balaban), he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire Prefecture…  I wish somebody spoke his language. The films of Wes Anderson have a signature – a look and tone that is unmistakable:  flat, square and symmetrical compositions filled with collectibles adorning an arch and ironic narrative with an amusing bittersweet undertow. The term ‘quirky’ is often used in reviews. His high point has been The Grand Budapest Hotel, a live-action comic drama that used ingenious tropes to express deeply felt ideological and emotional issues: Ralph Fiennes was rightly recognised for his performance in the lead (and should have won the Academy Award); The Royal Tenenbaums has become a definitive NYC movie, often referenced in fashion. He works with a repertory of actors who are now as well known for their association with him over the past two decades as for their other work:  he makes them hip, they lend him gravitas. He alternates these outings with animation/stop-motion effects-led films of which this is one and it’s probably his least appealing – with ineffectual dry humour, a grey palette and fairly expressionless humans (Japanese, and rather blank) turning what should have been a feather-light confection into a dreary one hundred minutes. The wry expressivity of the voice actors is lost in uncompelling characterisations that come off as flat as the drawings. The linguistic jokes are put in an occasional set of (obviously droll) sub-titles so small they are hard to read. It feels like there’s nothing at stake although it’s life and death and there’s a family reunion at hand. A quest narrative needs to have jeopardy but it’s stilted and gives little to the viewer. The best thing about this is the title. Say it a few times and you understand what this is actually about. It’s a shame but, you know, nobody died. Anderson’s screenplay is from a story by himself & Roman Coppola & Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura. Narrated by Courtney B. Vance.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is a limited actor and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

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You don’t fuck me and I always have to drive. In Portland, Oregon 1971, Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon) is the leader of a family of drug addicts consisting of his wife, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), and another couple, goofy Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham), a troublesome teenage drifter who can’t take Bob and his fear of hexes seriously. They feed their habit by robbing drug stores and pharmacies as they travel across the country. They vex tenacious cop Gentry (James Remar) and frame a neighbour for a bust. After one of them dies and the others have to stay in their motel room with the corpse because there’s a Sheriffs’ convention, Bob decides he has to clean up and go straight. Parting ways with his junkie past is tough, especially when he is stalked by an old acquaintance, Fr. Murphy (William Burroughs), who just wants to score … Director Gus Van Sant, legendary writer William Burroughs and Daniel Yost adapted James Fogle’s unpublished memoir of his junkie past. It’s a remarkably balanced movie about modern day outlaws, with the confidence to avoid moralising and just relate a story about criminals whose way of life revolves around the next fix. Their escapades are humorous and enervating, Bob’s highs are animated and amusing, the tragedy is inextricably linked to the comic ennui and unintentional deaths that this lifestyle entails. It has a remarkable texture, a combination of realistic documentary-style touches with colourful effects to suggest the visuals experienced in drug use. Told with daring and wit, irony writ large in the situation, the performances by Dillon and Lynch are outstanding. One of the best films of its era.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

Elle (2016)

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Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us from doing anything at all. Believe me. Perverse, funny, strange, blackly comic and at times surreal, this is a film like few others. It opens on a black screen as Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is raped by a masked man. She gets up, cleans herself and bathes and carries on as though nothing has happened. At work she is the one in control – it’s her company and she deals in the hyper-real, trying to make video games more experiential, the storytelling sharper, the visuals more tactile. She is attacked in a cafe by a woman who recognises her as her father’s lure – as a child she her dad murdered a slew of people and he’s an infamous serial killer, turned down for release yet again at the age of 76 and it’s all over the news:  there’s a photo taken of her as a blank-eyed ten year old which haunts people. Her mother is a plastic surgery junkie shacked up with another young lover. Her ex-husband (Charles Berling) is broke and tries to pitch her an idea for a game. Her loser son has supposedly knocked up a lunatic girlfriend (the eventual baby is not white) and needs money for a home. Elle is sleeping with the husband of her partner Anna (Anne Consigny). She likes to ogle her neighbour Patrick (Laurent Lafitte). Now as she gets text messages about her body she tries to figure out who among her circle of acquaintances could have raped her – and then when it happens again she unmasks him and starts a relationship of sorts following a car crash (a deer crosses the road, not for the first time in a 2016 film).  This is where the edges of making stories, power, control, reality, games and the desire for revenge become blurred. Adapted from Patrick Dijan’s novel Oh by David Birke and translated into French by Harold Manning, this is Paul Verhoeven’s stunning return to form, with Huppert giving a towering performance as a wily, strong, vulnerable, tested woman – she owns her own company and handles unruly employees using a sympathetic snitch but cannot control her family members and their nuttiness. You can’t take your eyes off her, nor can the camera.  While she tries to figure out how to regain her composure (she rarely loses it, even while she’s getting punched in the face) she also sees a way in which she might obtain pleasure.  In some senses we might see a relationship with Belle de Jour: Michèle is the still centre of a world in which crazy is normal. It’s shot to reflect this, with the video game and the animation of her made illicitly by one employee the only visual extremes:  the assaults (there’s more than the first, when she gets the taste for it) are conventionally staged. She has turned the tables on her rapist – he is undone by her desire for sex. This is all about role play.  When Michèle finally decides to cut the cord on all the loose ends in her life it brings everything to a satisfying conclusion as she regains her balance – her role as CEO assists her manage her own narrative minus any generic tropes. Now that’s clever. Oh! The audacity! What a great film for women in a very contemporary take on noir and the notion of the femme fatale. Big wow.  I killed you by coming here.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

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They said I was a valued customer now they send me hate mail! Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher) loves to shop. The trouble is, she shops so much that she is drowning in debt. She dreams of working at the city’s top fashion magazine Alette run by the accented dragon lady   (Kirstin Scott Thomas) but, so far, has not been able to get her foot in the door. Then she lands a job as an advice columnist for a financial magazine owned by the same company and run by the very attractive Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy). Her pseudonymous column (The Girl in the Green Scarf) becomes an overnight success, but her secret threatens to ruin her love life and career as the man she describes to her boss as her stalker is actually a debt collector and her best friend and roommate Suze (Krysten Ritter) suspects she is not really attending meetings of Shopaholics Anonymous … Sophie Kinsella’s first two Shopaholic novels get a NYC makeover here and if the plot runs out of steam towards the conclusion you can’t say they don’t give it the old college try. Fisher is fantastically effervescent as the very winning protagonist – when she convinces herself of the joys of shopping at her addicts’ group and runs out to – yup, shop! – you practically cheer. It’s a frothy look at addiction if that’s possible with some very persuasive scenes to those of us who might have succumbed to that jacket in, uh, every colour.  Screenplay by Tracey Jackson, Tim Firth and Kayla Alpert and directed with exuberance by P. J. Hogan who knows how to make a rockin’ girls’ movie. Will the real Rebecca Bloomwood please stand up?! Bright, breezy and a lot of fun.

Isao Takahata 10/29/1935-04/05/2018

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The death has taken place of Isao Takahata, the co-founder of legendary Japanese anime Studio Ghibli. He was 82.  Probably most acclaimed for Grave of the Fireflies, he was instrumental in bringing the artform to a global audience. He began working in the field at the Toei Studio in 1959 and eventually teamed up with arch rival Hayao Miyazaki in 1985 to make hugely influential and serious-minded films like the ecological story Pom Poko. This multi-talented auteur was a writer, producer and director (but not an animator).  His tendency towards realism balanced Ghibli’s more fantasy-oriented material, focussing on the quotidian and normal activities, bringing his literary education to bear on the world of the comic book and elevating its ambitions in the process. Rest in peace.

Ready Player One (2018)

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People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.  In 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves a video in which he promises that his immense fortune will go to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest as his avatar Parzival, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger. He finds romance and a fellow rebel in Art3mis aka Samantha (Olivia Cooke) and they enter a business war led by tyrannical Nolan Sorrentino (Ben Mendelson) who used to make Halliday’s coffee and is now prepared to do anything to protect the company … Adapted by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline from Cline’s cult novel, this blend of fanboy nostalgia with VR and gaming works on a lot of levels – and I say that as a non-gamer. There are a lot of things to like once you get accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of the narrative takes place in the virtual ie animated world yet it is embedded in an Eighties vista with some awesome art production and references that will give you a real thrill:  Zemeckis and Kubrick are just two of the cinematic gods that director Steven Spielberg pays homage in a junkyard future that will remind any Three Investigators reader of Jupiter Jones, only this time the kid’s got a screen.  This being a PC-VR production it’s multi-ethnic, multi-referential and cleverer-than-thou yet somehow there’s a warmth at its kinetically-jolting artificial centre that holds it together, beyond any movie or song or toy you might happen to have foist upon you. There are some of the director’s clear favourites in the cast – the inexplicable preference for Rylance and Simon Pegg (sheesh…) but, that apart, and delicious as some of this is – it looks like it really was made 30 years ago – you do have to wonder (and I say this as a mega fan), Will the real Steven Spielberg please stand up?! This is the real Easter Egg hunt.

A Monster Calls (2017)

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It begins like so many stories. With a boy, too old to be a kid. Too young to be a man. And a nightmare.  Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is dealing with far more than other boys his age. His beloved and devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is ill. He has little in common with his imperious grandmother Mrs Clayton (Sigourney Weaver). His father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away with a new family where he is obviously not welcomed. But Conor finds a most unlikely ally when the Tree Monster (Liam Neeson) appears at his bedroom window one night. Ancient, wild, and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth that powerfully fuses imagination and reality as he confronts his bullies and the imminent loss of his mother while his mentor tells him three stories that impact on his daily actions before the final story – his – can be told … Patrick Ness’ beautiful novel – itself recreated from an unfinished book by the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd – gets a very worthy adaptation from his own screenplay and director J.A. Bayona. It’s an unpromising even clichéd concept but is so wonderfully dramatised, visualised and delicately performed that you surrender to the tough core which offers a magical solution to a perverse reality –  death and bereavement and imminent orphandom for a boy in a problematic home situation. It shuns sentiment and even permits violence (Conor’s inner monster says No More Mister Nice Guy) to eventually become immensely moving as he gradually confronts the awful truth. A triumphant study of childhood.

Coco (2017)

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A minute ago I thought I was related to a murderer! You’re a total upgrade! Despite his family’s generations-old ban on music, young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Marguía) was abandoned by her musician father to pursue his career and her daughter Mama (Sofia Espinosa) doesn’t want to hear or see anyone with musical inclinations in this multi-generational household. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead after he plucks de la Cruz’s guitar from the wall of his mausoleum on the Day of the Dead. After meeting a charming trickster named Héctor (Gael García Bernal) the two new friends embark on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history involving murder, theft and a misbegotten career … Disney’s Mexican quest narrative has proved hugely popular critically and commercially and it’s easy to see why even if like most contemporary animated features it could have been twenty minutes shorter. It’s a wildly colourful ride, beautifully realised as an explanation of death as a parallel universe where existence is run with just as much pettiness and bureaucratic nonsense (spewing information from an Apple Mac in what looks like a nineteenth century railway station). Mapping Miguel’s desire to find out the truth about his mysterious great-grandfather while being teamed up with Héctor who hasn’t completely crossed over because his photograph hasn’t been memorialised is a clever trope, typical of the Hero’s Journey model which revolutionised the studio’s animation output thirty years ago. There are some good jokes for the adults featuring unibrows and Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) with a nod to Game of Thrones via a spirit guide that resembles a dragon. It may be based on the preceding short Dante’s Lunch but many people will recall The Book of Life from Fox a few years agoThis occasioned an eye-wateringly bad rendition of the song Remember Me at the Oscars, along with the other unutterably under-rehearsed Best Song nominees. Ah, Hollywood. The original story is by director Lee Unrich, Jason Katz, Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina while the screenplay is by Aldrich and Molina and the score is by Michael Giacchino.