Posts Tagged family films

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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The Greatest Showman

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Michael Gracey.   Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.

The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.

The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.

“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.

“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.

However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.

Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).

Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.

Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity.                MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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Beauty and the Beast

Year of release: 2017                Directed by Bill Condon.                Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.

 

That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.

After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.

I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.

In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.

For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.

Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.

Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.

As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.

The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.

Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.

As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

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Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter.

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Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ten years old. While the film has received decent reviews from critics (it currently has an 83% at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have been less kind to Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. When I saw it as a high school student ten years ago, I remember liking it more than most people seemed to, and I may or may not have said to a friend that this film was superior to the original, but that would have been said more in jest than anything else (if it had been said at all).

While Burton and Depp have done brilliant work over the course of their careers, both separately and together, they have also made some bad misfires, again both separately and together. On the other hand, they have made some of my favorite films, so I was curious as to what I would think of this now. However, as I recalled Depp’s goofy hamming it up as Wonka and how he’s lately turned into an obnoxious self parody (Mortdecai), it wasn’t hard to see roots of that here. And after watching some of Burton’s worst films, (Alice in Wonderland) I was resigned to say my high school self was badly wrong.

There’s no use in beating around the bush any longer; I guess I should just come and out and say it. This is a very good movie; it’s better than the 1971 film with Gene Wilder; and I found it to be an even better film than I remembered as a teenager. And no, none of those statements are said in jest.

If you’re still reading and have not deleted this blog from your search history or died of shock, I will emphasize that this film’s strengths lie in the perfectly cast children and Burton’s wildly creative visuals which bring the chocolate factory to life with a reverence for the source material while adhering to his own artistic vision. (I’m still not joking.)

All five of the children were terrifically cast. As Charlie, Freddie Highmore gives a great portrayal of optimism and innocence balanced with an acceptance of reality, always remaining determined and altruistic and never becoming cruel.

The four other child actors are a great contrast to Highmore, and they create delightfully repulsive characters. Philip Wiegratz does not have much to do as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, but his gloating about how much he eats makes the perfect candidate for the first victim of the chocolate factory. AnnaSophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde) delivers her lines with such arrogance and over the top energy that she’s hilarious as the über-competitive girl who detests losers (i.e. everyone else). As the spoiled brat of spoiled brats, Veruca Salt, Julia Winter alternates between pouting and grinning with such ease that it makes her being attacked by squirrels all the more rewarding, and that sequence is easily superior to the geese in the older film. Finally, Jordan Fry gives a great one note performance as the rude and sulking video game-obsessed Mike Teavee.

Burton’s set design and art direction are some of his finest, and the chocolate factory he created has a sense of beauty and danger. The opening shot — a fittingly austere worm’s eye view of the factory’s tower shrouded in fog — captures the greatness of the factory and gives it a feeling being unsafe. When we finally see inside the factory, the vibrant array of colors is genuine Burton art direction. The colorful factory starkly contrasts the drab grays and browns which permeate the London streets, with hints of those colors on display in candy stores. Naturally, the dull colors of London make the golden tickets stand out all the brighter.

I think the above points are all undisputedly fantastic —so much that I don’t really understand how someone could dislike those aspects of the movie. I do understand how someone might not care for Depp’s off-the-wall interpretation of Wonka as a reclusive weirdo scarred by a traumatic childhood. However, if one leaves preconceptions behind and gives the unorthodox performance a chance, he might be surprised to find the performance better than remembered. While Depp’s performance here clearly contains the seeds of him turning into the self parody that he has become recently, I think what he is doing actually works for Burton’s version of the story, even if it is a little overdone.

Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a horror film for children. After all, the idea of bratty children going off to a strange and mysterious factory where they fall victim to their temptations is not far removed from misbehaving teenagers going off to an abandon area and meeting gruesome ends due to their mistakes. Interestingly, the swirling melted chocolate which flows through the opening credits looks very similar to the gushing blood which flowed through the opening credits of Burton’s next film, the horror musical Sweeney Todd.

The horror in this film stems from the breakdown of families as a result of parental failure. Our hero Charlie is noticeably the only character to come from a happy intact family. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “Who went and spoiled her? Who indeed? / Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.” Depp’s Wonka suffers from the same horror that affects the other children, and the film cannot be resolved until that relationship is mended. If one views Depp’s Wonka as the equivalent of the creepy guy who knows the horrors awaiting badly behaved teenagers, his character works.

I guess I should add that I am partial to Burton’s visual aesthetic, and his weakness as a storyteller often does not bother me. (Alice in Wonderland and his Planet of the Apes are both pretty terrible, but Beetlejuice is one of the greatest films ever, and I like it better than every Tarkovsky film I’ve seen. Not. Joking.) Although he slightly failed to rein Depp in, Burton created some fantastic sets, and he preserved the essence of Dahl’s story while retelling it with a slightly darker edge that makes Charlie and The Chocolate Factory a thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film.

 

Content Advisory: Comic peril of bratty kids with possibly upsetting imagery.                      MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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