Posts Tagged comedy

Isle of Dogs

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Wes Anderson.  Voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Babalan, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, and Liev Schreiber.

When the world has become pile of garbage, and humans are seized with paranoia and are searching for a scapegoat to preserve their way of life at the expense of others, is it possible to still find goodness in the world? Wes Anderson barks out a resounding “yes” with this tale of a boy and his dog and the dog’s dogs and a girl and her dog, and many more dogs.

Isle of Dogs is admittedly an over-the-top smorgasbord of characters, elaborate and painstakingly crafted stop motion sets overflowing with Anderson’s trademarks of balanced compositions, quirky dialogue, and deadpan humor. It is also a love letter not only to canines but to Japanese culture, particularly the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.

At times it can seem overwhelming, and with the exceptions of Bryan Cranston’s gruff and scraggly stray Chief, Edward Norton’s pragmatic and talkative Rex who’s basically a canine version of Scout Master Ward, and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-prone husky Duke, none of the dogs make a particularly strong impression as individual characters, at least not on a first viewing.

However, considering the affection that saturates every detail of the production, for me, it didn’t really matter. The joy and passion that Anderson clearly had for this film, its story, the sets, and the characters was the driving force, and it is such a spectacularly beautiful thing to witness that by the film’s end I wanted to stand up and cheer.

One aspect I have repeatedly admired about Wes Anderson’s past films is the way they portray a broken world while simultaneously showing the characters’ hopes for a more perfect one. It’s what Sam and Suzy are seeking in Moonrise Kingdom; it’s what haunts Zero’s memories in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Isle of Dogs primarily taking place on a location called Trash Island after the titular animals are exiled there by an evil cat-loving dynasty that wishes to eliminate the canine population, the brokenness of this world could not be more apparent.

At the same time, moments of hope and joy appear throughout this world. The story primarily concerns twelve-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) who flies to Trash Island on a mission to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A resistance led by a group of students fights courageously and continually for the rights of the mistreated and victimized dogs. Throughout the film we are invited to laugh and celebrate such simple delights as a dog understanding television and the inherent conflict of five alpha dogs all being leaders for the same pack. An adorable litter of puppies features into the story in a way that undermines the cynicism of another character.

Finally, the denouement features one of the most delightfully satisfying triumphs of good over evil, showing a world where people do not fear the unknown and help those in need rather than exile them. And if I’m entirely honest, I find it impossible not to love a story in which corrupt fascists who maintain their power through paranoia and public manipulation, who make disparaging comments about immigrants, and who have creepy, long-faced, soulless ghouls as their right-hand men are then undone by their own sinister schemes.

There are obvious political analogies which the story invites, which may or may not have been intentional – considering the length of time that production took, some of the similarities between the villains and the USA’s current administration are probably coincidental, but for a story celebrating the marginalized and their inherent value as part of the world, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful example of art being a realization of timeless truths.

An opening title card informs the audience that all the humans speak their own tongue, which will sometimes be translated via electronics or a translator; all the barks, however, have been translated into English. It’s an insignificant detail, but the conviction with which it is conveyed makes it both funny and touching. The same could be said for Edward Norton’s frequent, trivial banter and for Jeff Goldblum’s smart-alack catch phrases – mundane and meaningless on their own, but the commitment which the actors give to their parts makes them come alive. It is the same way for every detail this production, and it is in the paying attention to those details that this story shines out as the gem it is.

 

Content Advisory: Some intense menace and peril including a murder, much cartoon violence – might frighten young or sensitive children.                      MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment

Personal recommendation: A

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Lady Bird

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Greta Gerwig.     Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Jordan Rodrigues, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, and Lois Smith.

Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who pays attention. She pays attention to her characters, their hopes and dreams, the world as it is and as it should be. And as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal of Immaculate Heart high school in Sacramento, tells Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), isn’t paying attention an act of love?

Lady Bird, Gerwig’s directorial debut, is an act of love for a very particular slice of the world, much like Frances Ha and Mistress America – the two movies she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird wears its heart on its sleeve (or pink arm cast, if you prefer) as it displays its affection for Sacramento, New York, theater, moms, best friends, and of course its headstrong protagonist.

As the titular headstrong protagonist, Saoirse Ronan is clearly a stand in for Gerwig, especially if one has seen Gerwig’s effervescent performance in Frances Ha. From the manner-of-fact way in which Ronan explains her character’s given name Lady Bird – “It was given to me by me” – to her desire to attend a college in the midst of the artsy culture of the East Coast, it is easy to see Gerwig’s Frances as a high school senior full of ambition and longing.

Those ambitions conflict with her practical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) who has little patience for Lady Bird’s whims and artistic dreams and wants her daughter to attend state college with affordable tuition where she can stay close to home. In so many coming of age films, this sort of demanding parent would be a simple villain, but Gerwig cares too much about all her characters to allow that to happen here. We see Marion’s concern over her husband (Tracy Letts) potentially being laid off, her sacrificing time to help her daughter find a dress on a limited budget, and the parallel scenes of mother and daughter that bookend the film clearly indicate how similar these two characters are and how much love Gerwig has for both of them.

That love extends to the rest of the cast as well. A late scene where Tracy Letts learns some potentially disappointing information is one of the most grace filled moments in any movie this year. The respect the movie has for Sister Sarah Joan reveals how much Gerwig enjoyed her own time at a Catholic high school. Even when Lady Bird plays a harmless prank on the nun, the film laughs at the joke while acknowledging Lady Bird’s less than ideal attempts to impress the “cool” kids. As Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Lucas Hedges is sympathetic, even when the relationship does not turn out as expected. When Lady Bird has the inevitable falling out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) Gerwig finds humor in the preposterous ways they voice their frustration with one another, indicating both how foolish their argument is and how valuable their friendship is.

As a director Gerwig’s attention to detail and eye for visual composition is incredible. The film is filled with subtle framing and editing choices that highlight the joys and the sorrows of life, finding beauty in both of them, often at the same time. Similarly constructed shots at key moments draw a heartfelt connection between Lady Bird and her mother, even when they’re at their most distant. A clever bit of crosscutting underscores the awkwardness and hurt caused by a seemingly trivial fabrication of Lady Bird’s.

Gerwig also paid attention to seemingly simple details during Lady Bird’s preproduction. Several key moments in the film involve songs by Justin Timberlake, Dave Matthews, and Alanis Morrissette. Therefore, Gerwig wrote personal letters to all three, asking for permission to use their music for the soundtrack.

Another soundtrack choice which exudes that affection for seemingly trivial details is the musical audition scene, which is easily my favorite scene in any film this year. As the high schoolers give semi-polished renditions of musical numbers for the audition, not only are the imperfections hilariously realistic and sweetly touching, but each song choice develops the respective character. A slightly off pitch and under-supported final phrase of “Being Alive” opens the scene, setting the stage for a medley of Sondheim numbers. Lady Bird gives a sassy and overacted performance of “Everybody Says Don’t,” which fits her rebellious nature perfectly. Danny sings “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods, when he’s about to go through his own similar woods. Finally, as the punchline to conclude the audition scene, Julie gives an offkey performance of “The Prayer of St. Francis,” reminding us of a Catholic hymn sung way too often.

Also, the choice of Merrily We Roll Along for a high school musical was another wonderfully endearing detail. I loved that Sondheim’s flawed but heartfelt musical about youthful dreams and ambitions was used in a film about the rough unpolished road of high school dreams and self-discovery. The opening lyric of Merrily We Roll Along is “Behold the hills of tomorrow, behold the limitless sky.” One thing this movie makes clear is that hills of tomorrow await Lady Bird wherever she goes to college, and regardless of how many mistakes she makes climbing them, she will make the best she can of her time.

A favorite quote of Sondheim’s is “God is in the details.” With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has shown how true that sentiment is with her attention to detail, which reveals a love for her characters as well as a love for all the joy and pain involved with the changes of life.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Martin McDonagh.         Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, John Hawkes, and Peter Dinklage.

When I was in undergrad, (longer ago than I wish to acknowledge) I took a humanities course for which we read Antigone, and for a classroom of 21st century college students, it was very easy to interpret the play as the story of a noble heroine standing up for justice and truth against a tyrannical ruler. It was quite eye-opening when one of the extra reading assignments (I don’t remember who wrote it) about Sophocles’ tragedy emphasized that the name of the play is Antigone, and thus Sophocles is saying she is the tragic character with a fatal flaw. That same reading went on to say that the ancient Greeks would have viewed both Antigone and Creon (the tyrannical king) as equally wrong and equally right, because they both dealt in extreme absolutes, refusing to the see the truth to the other’s side.

Mildred Hayes (an excellent Frances McDormand) is a similar protagonist to Antigone. Her daughter Angela was raped and murdered several months ago, the Ebbing, Missouri police department has come nowhere near catching the killer, and there are several prominent officers on the force with a notorious reputation for harassing and torturing black citizens. When she notices three unused billboards just outside of town, she rents them to advertise the incompetency and corruption of the police with the following statements: “Raped while dying,” “And still no arrests,” “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

Considering the recent news stories about police brutality and how often sexual predators get away with their crimes, it is all too easy to sympathize with Mildred. It is also easy to criticize Chief Willoughby (an outstanding Woody Harrelson) for being too lenient with the more violent and racist cops in his force, most notably Sam Rockwell’s explosive Officer Dixon, because as Mildred says, “the buck has to stop somewhere.”

However, as true as Mildred’s statement is, Harrelson’s performance clearly reveals there is more to Willoughby than a lazy, overly lenient cop. He followed every lead he got in the murder case, and every single one turned up a dead end. He’s dying of cancer, which preoccupies enough of his time that he makes the mistake of allowing the worse officers to continue working for him.

In the first instance of the film turning the tables on the audience’s expectations, when Willoughby mentions his cancer to Mildred, she bluntly responds, “I know; the whole town knows.” Shocked that she would still put up the billboards, Mildred indifferently responds, “They wouldn’t be as effective after you croak,” a morbid joke Willoughby appreciates, indicating the two of them are not that different, which is reinforced when he later returns the joke with an even harsher one.

That sort of dark humor, a trademark of Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh, is scattered throughout the entire film. However, unlike his last two dark comedies with tragic subject matter, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, Three Billboards is tragedy punctuated with jokes.

As a tragedy, the tragic flaw of all the characters is anger, and McDonagh indicts the audience for our own anger as well, at times stacking the deck to make that anger seem all the more justified. As I said, it is easy and natural to sympathize with Mildred, and Sam Rockwell’s nakedly racist and brutal Officer Dixon provides an easy villain to hate. However, as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) tells her, “All this anger only begets greater anger.”

That line is a succinct summary of what McDonagh is doing with Three Billboards, showing how the anger of Mildred toward the cops, the town towards her, school kids towards her son (Lucas Hedges), Dixon towards blacks, is all connected in a giant cycle making none of them that different. Even though some of that anger is justifiably motivated, when it escalates into rage, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish from the racist anger motivating Dixon.

Shortly after Mildred first puts the billboards up, the local priest callously attempts to counsel her to take them down. She retorts with a vicious insult about the sex abuse scandal. As others have noted, it is the sort of line that often receives cheers, and it comes early enough in the film, while we’re still meant to sympathize completely with Mildred, that it is certainly possible McDonagh intended it that way. However, while the rage-fueled response may feel good to Mildred and to some viewers at the time it is delivered, the remainder of the film shows that what begins as righteous anger very rarely stays that way.

 

Personal Recommendation: A

Content advisory: Frequent obscene and profane language, harsh violence with considerable gore, occasional racist and homophobic epithets, frank discussion of rape                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.             Starring Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley.

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I am not the biggest fan of Hans Zimmer – I often find his music too heavy handed and repetitive, but I have always enjoyed the work he and Klaus Badelt did for the initial Pirates of the Caribbean. The cues altered between ebullience and solemnity in a fittingly cartoonish way with simple, traditional orchestrations to match. The score for Dead Men Tell No Tales is composed by Geoff Zanelli but still utilizes all of Zimmer’s main themes; however, those themes are re-orchestrated so that the once light-hearted soundtrack is now overwrought with plodding cues that are too loud, too thick, and sadly rather lifeless.

It’s a fitting metaphor for this franchise.

Nowhere is that more apparent than Depp. I am someone who will defend his work in Curse of the Black Pearl as one of his three greatest performances and think he absolutely should have won the Oscar that year. In this film, he half-heartedly phones in a wooden parody of that performance from fourteen years ago, which is probably an all time career low for him (and yes, I’m considering Alice in Wonderland).

The rest of the cast has varying levels of success at finding the right level of camp for the material. Javier Bardem passably hisses his way through an undead Spanish pirate hunter, but for undead nemeses hunting Jack, both Bill Nighy and Geoffrey Rush did it better. Rush is back briefly for an attempt at nostalgia, as are Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. None of them are given anything to do, other than remind us how much better they were in the first film. As the new young love-struck couple, Brenton Thwaites and Kaya Scodelario are so obsessed with hammering home their one respective character trait that they move from no chemistry to negative chemistry as they actively make sure we have no interest in whether they succeed or not.

The plot revolves around Thwaites and Scodelario, as he is looking for the Trident of Poseidon to lift the curse on his father, and she wants to solve the map her unknown father left for her, which leads to the same place. For some mysterious reason, they also need Captain Jack Sparrow to get there, but he, his compass, and the Black Pearl have no bearing on the outcome at all. How they discover they need one another is never really explained. His name is Henry Turner (son of Will and Elizabeth) and she is Carina Smyth, a progressive woman of science who repeatedly insists she is not a witch, but an astronomer and horologist. It shouldn’t need explaining how the latter is received among pirates.

N.B. The word horologist didn’t exist until the 19th Century, about 70 or so years after this film. So with an anachronism like that, someone probably should check to see if she weighs the same as a duck, but I digress.

In terms of pacing, this one probably slightly improves on the previous film considering that it moves through its nonsensical plot at a slightly less lifeless rate, but on the other hand that plot is a blender full of ideas and characters with no real continuity. I suppose I also need to mention there are zombie sharks, and the film even makes that boring.

To be fair, there are brief lines and gags which recall the fun of the original, but those are few and far between.

At least we can say ending The Beatles is not the worst thing Sir Paul ever did.

 

Personal Recommendation: C-

Content advisory: Fairly intense action violence, gruesome imagery, and some off-colour humor.              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

 

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Free Fire

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Ben Wheatley.                  Starring Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, and Michael Smiley.

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I thought Free Fire would be a fun, fast-paced, if violent, action film in which immoral characters exchange witty insults while revealing flickerings of their shared humanity. I was badly mistaken.

Free Fire supposedly has a run time of an hour and a half. I say supposedly, because I would have sworn I was sitting in the theater a lot longer than that. This thing slogs along through a black market gun deal gone wrong as slowly as the bullet ridden bodies drag themselves through the ultimate Mexican standoff which said deal devolves into. I forget at which point precisely this thought occurred to me, and I never imagined I would say this in my entire life; however, this film would have been a lot better had Quentin Tarantino directed it.

Tarantino making this film might have caused some new problems, namely the already nasty violence may have been slightly nastier (but only slightly), but on the other hand, it would have had a pulse, it would have had witty snappy dialogue, and it would have had characters we care about – or at least characters with memorably fascinating quirks, unlike the nondescript sacks of meat filling each other with lead that occupy the run time here.

Ben Wheatley directs a script he co-wrote with Amy Jump, and the two of them edit as well. I’m not entirely sure edit is the right word, because the incoherent jumble of images is nearly impossible to follow, especially as the script randomly throws new characters into the mix without ever wasting any time on trivialities such as character development. If the goal was to show it’s impossible to tell who’s shooting at whom, I suppose the film succeeds at that, but the aggressive editing doesn’t make us reflect on the cost of violence. Since it’s so much work to keep track of anything going on, it just makes it a relief when bullet bank #4 finally bites the dust – that’s one less thing to keep track of.

On the very light plus side, Armie Hammer actually manages to create a character from the practically non-existent material he’s given to work with. Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy come close as well.

At some point during pre-production, there was definitely a good idea about the dark humor of a ruthless Mexican standoff, with some worthy nods to themes of violence begetting violence and making it impossible to distinguish allies from foes. Sadly, it seems that was the first causality caught in the crossfires of this mess of a film.

Personal Recommendation: D+

Content Advisory: Graphic violence, some of it quite nasty, and frequent obscene language throughout.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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