Isle of Dogs

April 6, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“Moonrise Kingdom”)

Looking back at filmmaker Wes Anderson’s past projects, one could argue the writer/director hasn’t been kind to man’s best friend.

In 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” a wild-eyed Owen Wilson drives his Austin-Healey off the road and runs over the family’s beagle Buckley. Seemingly unaffected, the Tenenbaums replace the pet in a matter of minutes with a firefighter’s Dalmatian. In 2012’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson writes in a scene where the young protagonist’s fox terrier Snoopy gets shot in the neck with an arrow. (“Was he a good dog? Who’s to say?”)

With all the canine casualties, it’s no wonder The New Yorker wrote an article a few years ago asking, “Does Wes Anderson Hate Dogs?” Note 1: The death of these dogs has no bearing on the actual story. Both would still be great films if he had let the dogs live. Note 2: He lets Willem Dafoe kill a cat in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” so go figure. It’s a question Anderson puts to rest with “Isle of Dogs,” the second stop-motion animated feature of his career, after 2009’s fanciful “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

Anderson undoubtedly matches his first outing in the genre with “Isle of Dogs,” a deadpan, dystopian adventure starring one of the most diverse cast of four-legged, animated characters since the Disney classic “Lady and the Tramp.” Its whimsical nature, of course, is unmistakably Anderson, so if he’s not your cup of Darjeeling tea, this won’t be either. However, fans of his idiosyncratic work will enjoy the wonderful world of wagging tails he has created with such exhaustive detail. It’s noteworthy, too, that “Isle of Dogs” is Anderson’s most politically-themed picture to date, although one could argue that classism and fascism are covered effectively in “Rushmore” and “Budapest.”

In “Isle of Dogs,” the dogs of Japan’s fictional Megasaki City are suffering from dog flu and thusly banished to an island covered in trash, so the disease won’t spread to their human masters. The first of dog exiled is Spots (Liev Schreiber), the official guard dog of the city’s sinister Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and pet to Kobayashi’s 12-year-old orphaned nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin). Committed to bringing Spots home, Atari hijacks a small plane and crash-lands it on Trash Island where he is rescued by a group of deported dogs who argue about whether they should help the boy find his pup.

For his pack of alpha-male mongrels, Anderson casts his usual, talented suspects — Edward Norton as Rex, Bob Balaban as King, Bill Murray as Boss, Jeff Goldblum as Duke, and newcomer to the Anderson roster, Bryan Cranston as Chief, a stray and de facto leader who reluctantly goes on the “Saving Private Ryan”-esque journey even though he knows it will probably mean their lives. On their way, they meet Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), a former show dog whose master Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) heads a group of young activists to fight against the “dog-hating thugs” spouting political propaganda and trying to conceal the creation of a cure for dog flu.

As in all of Anderson’s films, the soft-spoken and dryly sarcastic comedy is not really for moviegoers with a broad sense of humor or for the narrow base of Anderson naysayers who think his distinctive style only appeals to pretentious hipster doofuses. Anderson does what he does and does it incredibly well. Part of that, obviously, is the attention he pays to every single frame of his visual composition. Not only is the handmade artistry meticulous across the board, but Anderson’s eye for choreographed randomness is second to none. Even the animated fleas that scurry across a dog’s fur are impressive. Add another award-worthy score by Alexandre Desplat and some bold decisions by Anderson when it comes to translating the Japanese language throughout the film, and “Isle of Dogs” is something truly special.

While it has, for whatever reason, become sort of cool to jab Anderson for his eccentric directorial choices (there are plenty of parodies online that poke fun of him and his films), it’s not something admirers should worry about, especially since even cynics would say he’s at least consistent. If that’s something everyone can agree on, those on the right side of cinematic history should add “Isle of Dogs” to Anderson’s growing catalog of cleverness and quirk.

Power Rangers

March 25, 2017 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Dean Israelite (“Earth to Echo”)
Written by: John Gatins (“Real Steel,” “Flight”)

In this, the golden age of movies based on geek-friendly properties, there are still a few outliers that commit the cardinal sin of being ashamed of their source material. Captain America wears his red, white and blue costume on screen and will soon meet up with a talking raccoon and tree-person, for crying out loud. We’re through the looking glass, people, dance with the one that brought you! These comic book-adjacent properties are thriving in an environment that embraces all of the things we might have thought were too silly to put to film 20 years ago.

Nothing quite personifies ‘90s cheese TV as well as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” a show so earnest it makes “Saved By The Bell” look like “Beverly Hills 90210.” Even with it’s corny acting and repurposed Japanese special effects-filled monster battles, it became a sensation that’s still in production in some form today, nearly 25 years after premiering.

The new “Power Rangers,” seemingly borrows more from “Friday Night Lights,” “Chronicle” and even the “Star Trek” reboot. The film follows five bland teens as they meet in a “Breakfast Club” style detention, stumble across some color-coded power coins, gain superhuman strength, and plunge into an underground spaceship where they meet a very dickish Zordon (Bryan Cranston) who tells them they are now the Power Rangers. But before they get to don their helmeted battle armor (no spandex here) and ride in their giant robot dinosaurs, we have to suffer through a patience-testing hour and a half of plodding training montages, several horrible rollover car crashes, and a confusing sexting scandal that threatens to bring down one of the Rangers.

Why in Zordon’s name would anyone think a dour, deathly serious “Power Rangers” movie would be the way to go in 2017? Whatever the reason, it’s here, Morphin fans, so dance.

 

The Infiltrator

July 15, 2016 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger
Directed by: Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”)
Written by: Ellen Sue Brown (debut)

Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar has always been a source of great fascination. Even still, there seems to be a resurgence in the interest of him as a subject, as seen in recent projects like Netflix’s “Narcos,” “Escobar: Paradise Lost” and various other documentaries. As a look at a different perspective “The Infiltrator” tells the story about how a U.S. Customs agent took down the cartel’s money laundering system in America.

Based on a true story, “The Infiltrator” tells the story of how U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) assumed the role of Bob Musella and infiltrated the deadly Escobar-led Medillin cartel. Posing as an accountant of sorts, Musella offers to help launder cocaine money while getting close to higher ups of the organization. As Mazur goes deeper and deeper, his relationships become more complex and the danger grows.

It is no secret that Cranston is one of the most lauded television actors of all time. Since the end of “Breaking Bad,” where Cranston won four Emmys (including a record tying three in a row) playing chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White, Cranston has had mixed results in film projects. Last year’s “Trumbo,” a role which found Cranston nominated for an Oscar, may have been the turning point, however. His performance in “The Infiltrator” is no different. Cranston is easily the best thing on screen, as he begins to blur his way into his new role as Musella. Cranston has always played vulnerable well, and to watch him sink into the role while using his expressive face to show the difficult of taking down people you’ve grown close to is something to behold. The supporting cast is OK, with John Leguizamo getting the brunt of the work. It’s a slightly hammy performance. As a comedian, it’s almost as if Leguizamo couldn’t help but throw in jokes in times where they don’t work as well.

The best thing “The Infiltrator” has working for it is its sense of tension. Musella is constantly put in situations where he’s given pressure to break, as he works his way into the cartel. It’s a bloody and scary business and watching even the most seasoned pro like Musella be so deeply affected by the brutality of the industry is a credit to Cranston’s performance and good tension building.

When the film is tense and unpredictable, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. When it isn’t, however, it becomes a little dull and plodding. Tension between Leguizamo and Cranston feels a little forced and ineffective, while elements of Mazur/Musella’s home life are nothing special.

There’s a bit of cartel fatigue going around, especially with the Escobar story being told so many times. “The Infiltrator” does a good enough job of telling another side of the story that makes it a worthwhile endeavor. It’s a touch generic and retreaded ground (if you’ve seen any cartel movie, you should be able to figure out where the plot is going), but when it dials up the tension, Cranston’s sheer power takes over and elevates the material exponentially.

Kung Fu Panda 3

January 29, 2016 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Jennifer Yuh (“Kung Fu Panda 2”) and Alessandro Carloni (debut)
Written by: Jonathan Aibel (“Kung Fu Panda 2”) and Glenn Berger (“Kung Fun Panda 2”)

How do you make the third installment of an animated panda bear series even more adorable than the first two movies? Add a handful of fat baby pandas to the mix and give them plenty of dumplings to devour. Such is the case with “Kung Fu Panda 3” as hero panda Po (Jack Black) teams up once again with the Furious Five – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) – to defeat an evil villain set to run amok across China.

While the aforementioned cast does another fantastic job with their voice work, specifically Black as the clumsy leader whose on the job training as the Dragon Warrior is working out pretty well, it’s the new talent brought onto this sequel that really makes it memorable. This includes recent Oscar-nominated actor Bryan Cranston (“Trumbo”) as Li, Po’s long lost biological father who finds Po and returns him to his panda roots, and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons (“Whiplash”) as Kai, a villainous bull set on stealing the life force (“chi”) of anyone who gets in his way. Also, keep your eye out for the scene-stealing and hilarious Mei Mei (Kate Hudson), a female ribbon dancing panda bear who takes quite a liking to a less-than-interested Po.

The narrative is warm and light enough in “Kung Fu Panda 3,” although much of the story isn’t what anyone would really consider original. What still stands out, however, is the incredible animation DreamWorks has been able to create with this franchise. The world of “Kung Fu Panda” is even more visually striking than it was when the original film hit theaters in 2008. The animation studio’s perfect combination of computer generated and 2-D work is brilliant and each character, old and new, feels fresh and exceptionally vibrant. Some of the most impressive animated scenes, much like in the last two movies, take place when animators slow down the action right in the middle of a fast-paced fight sequence so audiences can see the finer points of the battle – the splintering of a wooden pole that just got punched or someone getting a roundhouse kick to the jaw.

An overall comparison between “Kung Fun Panda 3” and its predecessors would leave this recent animated movie lagging behind in storytelling, although the father/son messaging is pleasant enough, but there’s no denying DreamWorks is making a stand against powerhouses like Pixar and Disney. Just as long as they can stop producing schlock like last year’s ill conceived “Home,” DreamWorks will still be in the conversation when the big players are mentioned.

Argo

October 12, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin
Directed by: Ben Affleck (“The Town”)
Written by: Chris Terrio (debut)

Imagine what screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd must’ve been thinking when former CIA officer Tony Mendez released his book “Master of Disguise” in 1999. The memoir, which reveals details about a covert operation he led to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran in 1980, was a story Chetwynd though he had already thoroughly adapted into the TV movie “Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper” one year after the mission ended. While Caper provided many stirring and historical facts about the incident, the most Hollywoodesque parts of it weren’t even known until President Bill Clinton declassified the top-secret CIA files in 1997.

In “Argo,” his third film as a director, Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town”) takes the full, uncensored narrative and runs with it. Unlike his last two films, Affleck doesn’t get a writing credit to his name this time around. Instead, he passes the expansive script duties to first-time screenwriter Chris Terrio who keeps the interaction and dialogue between characters moving briskly, but finds difficultly in building tension without glossing over the conflict.

After militants infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, a plan was devised to rescue six diplomats who were able to escape the hostage situation and hide out in the home of a Canadian ambassador. What no one knew aside from those involved was this: Mendez’s risky idea – and the reason a film like “Argo” is so unique on paper – was to smuggle the diplomats out of Iran by pretending they were all part of a filmmaking crew scouting locations for a kitschy sci-fi movie (in “Caper,” they attempt their escape as less intriguing grain exporters). Standouts in “Argo” include Oscar winner Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and John Goodman (“The Artist”) as two film industry pros operating a fake studio back home in Los Angeles.

What’s so ironic about “Argo” is that it’s a story about a faux film, but occasionally comes across just as deceptive as the movie-within-a-movie it’s featuring. Some might consider certain scenes in the third act thrilling, but editing them in such a happenstance manner makes them crowd pleasing at best. Still, Affleck makes more good directorial choices than he does questionable ones, especially when he pays close attention to the details of the era. That, along with the timeliness of the subject matter (one can’t watch without thinking of recently slain U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens), and “Argo” is a solid political spy movie, despite being gift wrapped a little too neatly.

Total Recall

August 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel
Directed by: Len Wiseman (“Underworld,” “Live Free or Die Hard”)
Written by: Kurt Wimmer (“Salt”) and Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”)

Remakes of movies people remember fondly are a tough sell from the start. Not only do you have to engage the audience with the story you’re telling, but you’ve got to do so in a way that doesn’t have the audience mentally checking off plot points from the DVD they have sitting on the shelf at home. Recently, the filmmakers behind the updates of “Footloose,” “The Karate Kid,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have tried, with varying degrees of success, to strike the right balance between satisfying the fans of the original who are drawn to the name recognition a remake brings and the need to put a unique spin on the story to justify the existence of the new version.

The latest modern classic to receive the remake treatment is “Total Recall.” This new spin on the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi/action film stars Colin Farrell as Doug Quaid, a post-apocalyptic factory worker suffering from vivid nightmares. In an effort to change his life, Quaid pays a visit to Rekall, a company specializing in implanting fake memories into the minds of their clients such as dream vacations or wild sexual fantasies. Quaid’s procedure is aborted, however, when the staff realizes that his memory has already been erased and a commando team blasts its way in, guns blazing. Upon escaping, Quaid returns home to find his wife Lori (Kate Beckinsale) is out to kill him and that their marriage is a lie that has been implanted in his head. Escaping for the second time, Quaid encounters Melina (Jessica Biel), a resistance fighter he shares a past with bent on bringing down the evil Chancellor Cohaagen (Bryan Cranston).

This version of “Total Recall” suffers from a fatal flaw: not getting its ass to Mars. Director Len Wiseman (“Underworld”) has crafted a slick, lens-flared world torn in two by chemical warfare, but keeping the action Earth-bound turns the film into a dull, anonymous sci-fi slog. The futuristic cityscapes populated with flying cars zipping through canyons of neon signs are never as effective as the papiermâché Martian caves from the original and feel like they could have been lifted wholesale from “Blade Runner” or “The Fifth Element” or even “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.”  Outside of the clearly-enjoying-himself Cranston, the cast doesn’t fare any better. Farrell’s Quaid is a bland, less tormented Jason Bourne, Beckinsale is merely playing an evil version of her acrobatic hero from the “Underworld” movies, and Jessica Biel is just a pretty actress wearing frumpy military-style clothing and shooting guns.  Implant a positive memory and watch the original version on DVD instead.

Drive

September 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”)
Written by: Hossein Amini (“Killshot”)

As the final frame faded and the credits rolled, the silence in the theater was deafening.  An almost palpable sense of confusion hung in the auditorium as moviegoers tried to comprehend what they just saw. Where was the adrenaline filled heist movie that all of the trailers and TV spots promised? What happened to the quiet and sweet Ryan Gosling from the first half of the movie? How many ways can a human head be split into pieces, and did we have to see all of them? In many ways, “Drive” almost feels like two movies, as it takes a pretty innocent, by-the-numbers first half and then catches you off guard with some of the most graphic violence seen this year.

Gosling plays an unnamedHollywoodstunt-driver who moonlights as a getaway driver. His mechanic friend Shannon (Bryan Cranston) decides to go to mobsters Nino (Ron Pearlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks) to secure their investment in a racecar team headed by Gosling. As “the driver” forges a relationship with neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, their bond is quickly threatened when her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from jail. In order to protect Irene and Benicio, Gosling agrees to help Standard with one last job. After the robbery is botched, Gosling is finds himself on the run from the mob, entangling all of the characters in a bloody mess along the way.

Ryan Gosling’s performance as “the driver” is a difficult one to evaluate. For the first half of the movie, he is a soft-spoken man of few words who can’t seem to stop smiling at the girl he is crushing on. But midway through, he exchanges his smiles for piercing stares as he morphs into a very familiar revenge-driven tough guy. The character comes off as shallow, as most of Gosling’s performance relies on emoting with his eyes rather than true character development, which is more of a fault of the script than his. Carey Mulligan isn’t given much to work with, but her beauty commands the screen and there is decent chemistry between her and Gosling. As for the other supporting roles, Albert Brooks and Ron Pearlman prove to be unmemorable as a pair of mobsters, with Pearlman being almost comical in his delivery at times.

One absolute positive about “Drive” is the skillful direction by Nicolas Winding Refn. His deliberate style is marked by perfectly-constructed shots with fantastic camera work and well-composed scenery. In a single scene, and in some cases a single shot, Refn shows beautiful images juxtaposed with brutal violence in ways that are completely unique to his style. The pacing of the film is purposely very slow and matched with plenty of lingering shots, sometimes of people just gazing at each other. The script itself is filled with clichés from several film genres, however Refn infuses stylized violence to break them up, a move that is executed well from a technical standpoint, but is perhaps better in theory than in the context of the film. One thing that is clear is that Refn was able to achieve his exact vision for the film, even if its results vary in success.

For a movie that boasts one of the most popular young actors inHollywood, and has a marketing campaign that implies a car-chase filled thrill ride, the unorthodox presentation of “Drive” leaves it with such minimal mainstream appeal. While Refn should be applauded and respected for attempting such a bold film, this strange and unique art-house take on a heist movie lacks the substance and character strength to match the level of quality of the direction.