Review: Isle of Dogs

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, Kunichi Nomura
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Koyu Rankin, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono
Released: April 12, 2018
Grade: A-

Isle of Dogs
I’ll admit to being a Wes Anderson fan boy.  His screenplays are creative, his characters are memorable, and his cinematography is distinctive.  From Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou to Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson makes films, laced with dark comedy, which are easy to watch again and again.

The imaginatively titled Isle of Dogs (think “I Love Dogs”) is another worthy addition on his impressive resume.  Shot using the painfully slow process of stop-motion animation (as he did with Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009), the film is set in a fictitious Japanese city that is ruled by the controlling Mayor Kobayashi.  When a strong strain of flu infects canines in the area, the Mayor has every single dog in the city banished to the neighbouring Trash Island.  There’s also an ulterior motive at play with the Mayor not hiding the fact that he prefers cats to dogs.

There’s a cute notice at the start of the movie telling audiences that all barks have been translated into English.  This allows us to follow the story from the perspective of the dogs as opposed to the humans.  Much of what transpires occurs on the disgustingly filthy Trash Island.  There’s no clean water and the dogs have to rely on rotten scraps as food.  It’s a wonder that so many have been able to survive for so long.

The crux of the story builds when a 12-year-old boy, Atari (Rankin), steals a plane and travels to Trash Island in search of his long-lost dog, Spots.  Government officials normally wouldn’t show much interest but with Atari being the nephew of Mayor Kobayashi, it becomes headline news.  Security forces are sent in to bring him back home but Atari evades capture and teams up with a group of cunning dogs to help locate the missing Spots.

He’s admired within the industry and Wes Anderson had no trouble assembling a cast for Isle of Dogs.  Scheduling conflicts are often a challenge but in the case of an animated feature, it’s much easier to pull together a big cast as the voices can be recorded on any day at any time.  Some dogs are voiced by long-time Anderson collaborators such as Billy Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton whilst others are making their debut such as a Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson and Liev Schreiber.  Most are working for love of the craft as opposed to money given the reported budget of the film was just $17.5 million.

Targeted at both kids and adults, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the story and the mix of both light and dark comedy.  You can smile at some of the long-running jokes (Jeff Goldblum’s dog is quick to pass on rumours) while being surprised by unexpected moments (the fate of a caged dog).  When you throw these cute, likeable characters into an odd world, there’s much opportunity for humour.

Anderson is known for his use of symmetry and that’s illustrated again here with some beautifully framed scenes.  It’s hard to pick a favourite but two moments stand out for me – one involves a chef making sushi and another features a doctor performing a kidney transplant.  There’s also an incredible attention to detail highlighted by the wind subtly moving through the dogs’ fur.  The talented crew deserve huge praise for their work.

Wes Anderson is winless from 6 previous nominations at the Academy Awards but when looking ahead to the best animated feature category at next year’s ceremony, this could be his chance to break that streak and take home a 13.5 inch statuette.  See this film!


Review: A Quiet Place

Directed by: John Krasinski
Written by: Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe
Released: April 5, 2018
Grade: A

A Quiet Place
It can take a little while for a movie to reel audiences in but A Quiet Place will hook them from the very opening scene.  The world (or at least the United States) has been attacked by giant grasshopper-like creatures which devour any type of living being.  It took a little while for the human population to catch on but these monsters don’t rely on sight.  Rather, they are attracted to sound.  They won’t attack you… provided you don’t make a single noise.  Cool premise, right?  Could you go the rest of your life without making a single sound if your life depended on it?

That’s the position that the Abbott family find themselves in.  They’ve taken refuge in a simple home in a rural part of their country.  Every part of their daily routine has been altered so that they make as little noise as possible.  They remove their shoes when walking outside and are careful about every step.  They have painted marks on wooden floorboards so they know where to place their foot without making a creaking noise.  They communicate using sign language – a practice they’re familiar with given one of their children is deaf.

I love eating popcorn when going to the movies but I’m the first to admit that isn’t the best idea when going to see A Quiet Place.  Given the premise, much of the film is deathly silent – no dialogue, no sound effects and no background music.  It’s a great movie to see in a packed cinema because audiences will be conscious of their own noises.  Whether it be a simple cough or the opening of a packet of lollies, every sound will feel louder and more prominent than usual.

The writing team have no intention of letting us off lightly.  We can see them laying the groundwork for more complicated scenarios which are to follow.  There’s a scene where the mother unknowingly exposes a long metal nail which is protruding from a step.  It’s only a matter of time before someone steps on it.  Will they scream?  We also learn that the mother is pregnant.  How can they possibly bring a crying baby in the world and expect it to survive?

With just a handful of actors needed for the whole movie, A Quiet Place has been brought to the screen by actor-turned-director John Krasinski (The Office).  He’s busy in front of the camera too.  Krasinski takes on the role of the father with his real life wife, Emily Blunt (Into the Woods), playing the mother.  The child actors also pull their weight.  14-year-old Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) is a deaf actress who, in addition to her great performance, helped teach sign language to her fellow actors.  13-year-old Noah Jupe will also be familiar to audiences who saw Wonder late last year.

The film will have its detractors.  Some will be frustrated by the lack of background knowledge about this world and how these creatures came to inhabit it.  Others will be wondering about the choices made by this family such as the decision to have another child.  Those questions/criticisms have merit but for me, the creative premise and creepy vibe outweigh any perceived negatives. 

We’ve had some great horror films in recent years such as The Babadook, Don’t Breathe and Get OutA Quiet Place deserves to be included in their company.


Review: Peter Rabbit

Directed by: Will Gluck
Written by: Will Gluck, Rob Lieber
Starring: Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, James Corden, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: B+

Peter Rabbit
British author Beatrix Potter wrote dozens of books throughout her life but it’s her very first novel for which she is best known – The Tale of Peter Rabbit.  It was first published in 1902, has been translated into numerous languages, and has reportedly sold more than 45 million copies.  Now, for the first time, the adventures of this mischievous rabbit have been adapted for the first time as a big screen movie.

We’re told during the opening scenes that our leading character is a “young rabbit with a blue coat and no pants.”  Peter (voiced by James Corden), along with his fellow rabbits, live in the country and source their food from a backyard vegetable garden.  The farmer (Neill) is furious that his crops are continually stolen and eaten but he’s powerless against Peter and his cunning work.

Everything is upended when the farmer passes away and ownership of the home transfers to his young nephew, Jeremy (Gleeson).  Jeremy is a Londoner who is keen to put the house up for sale but before doing so, he’s intent on eliminating all the rabbits and other creatures who devalue the property with their thieving acts.  It’s at this point where the real mayhem begins.

Brought to the screen by writer-director Will Gluck (Easy A), is a mix of animation of live action.  It’s also a distinctively Australian affair with Animal Logic providing the animation, Sydney’s Centennial Park providing most of the setting, and a group of well-known Australian actors contributing to the voices – Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Ewen Leslie, Bryan Brown and David Wenham.  Rose Byrne also stars as one of the featured human characters – the kind-hearted, rabbit-loving next door neighbour.

Clocking it a tight 93 minutes, Peter Rabbit is fun and easy to like.  Yes, it’s targeted at children but there’s a surprising amount of humour on offer for the adult crowd.  The animation team have done a stellar job in creating this funny, charming creatures.  Gluck has also selected a bunch of popular current day songs which will be known to most of the audience.

Domhnall Gleeson relishes his cheeky, villainous role but it’s not as one sided as you might think.  A key theme of the film is that we shouldn’t broadly categorise people as “good” or “bad”.  Whether we’re the cute Peter Rabbit or the angry Jeremy Fisher, we all make mistakes and we can all be redeemed.  It’s a nice message for both kids and adults to be reminded of.

After a strong box-office opening in the United States last month, further instalments of Peter Rabbit could soon be in the works.


Review: Blockers

Directed by: Kay Cannon
Written by: Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe
Starring: John Cena, Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon, Geraldine Viswanathan
Released: March 29, 2018
Grade: B+

Mitchell (Cena), Lisa (Mann) and Hunter (Barinholtz) each have a teenage daughter and each has a different approach when it comes to parenting.  Mitchell is the over-protective type.  He lays down firm ground rules and keeps a very close eye on his daughter’s activities.  Lisa is the smothering type.  She treats her daughter like a best friend and wants to spend every minute of every day with her.  Hunter is the laidback type.  He jokes around, keeps a low profile and tries to give his daughter plenty of space to be herself.

They’re as different as chalk and cheese but one thing has brought these three people together in search of a common goal.  Their daughters, who are best friends at school, have made a pact to lose their virginity on prom night.  They know of this because Lisa was snooping around on her daughter’s laptop and read the text messages between them.  Determined to protect their innocence, Mitchell, Lisa and Hunter head to the prom and the related after parties to “block” their boyfriends so that no sex can take place.

It’s a nutty storyline but Blockers works because of the comedic chemistry between the three leads – John Cena (Trainwreck), Leslie Mann (17 Again) and Ike Barinholtz (Neighbours).  They argue continually throughout the movie and are placed in an assortment of crazy situations.  There are a few set pieces which feel rushed and abbreviated (such as a scene where they break into an occupied house) but on the whole, the jokes hit the mark and audiences will be laughing out loud.

I do want to make a comparison to one of my favourite comedies of 2017, Girls’ Trip.  It too pushed boundaries with its edgy, MA-rated laughs but below the surface was a more serious storyline about friendships and how they change over time.  Blockers strives to be something more by exploring the relationships between parents and siblings but it doesn’t dig as deep and doesn’t make as strong an impact.  I didn’t care that much about these teenage girls and their respective boyfriends.

Marking the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, the American writer behind the Pitch Perfect franchise, Blockers is an above average comedy that’s easy to engage with.


Review: Pacific Rim: Uprising

Directed by: Stephen S. DeKnight
Written by: Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, Steven S. DeKnight, T.S. Nowlin
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Rinko Kikuchi
Released: March 22, 2018
Grade: C+

Pacific Rim: Uprising
In a world where studios are playing it increasingly safe with sequels, reboots and well-established franchises, the 2013 release of Pacific Rim was a big gamble.  It cost roughly $200 million USD, it was a completely original screenplay, and it didn’t have any A-list Hollywood actors amongst its cast.  It didn’t perform particularly well the United States but it recovered its costs thanks to big business in China and other international markets.  Critics were impressed by the creativity and style brought to the movie by writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).

The sequel went through several stages of on-again, off-again but in 2016, a script was finalised and a new director brought in.  With del Toro working on other projects, including his Oscar winning The Shape of Water, the reigns were handed over to Steven S. DeKnight, a writer-director best known for works on the smaller screen including Angel, Smallville and SpartacusPacific Rim: Uprising marks his first feature film.

Given that I see more than 200 movies every year and am starting to show signs of old age, it’s helpful to see this film begin with a quick recap of the earlier movie.  Some huge alien monsters, known as the Kaiju, attacked the planet after travelling through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  Unable to be defeated using traditional weapons, countries around the world responded by building giant robots, known as Jaegers, to fight back.  Lives were lost and buildings were destroyed but in the end, the humans triumphed (as you’d expect).

Pacific Rim: Uprising picks up the narrative about 10 years later.  Major cities around the world are still being rebuilt.  Those from poorer backgrounds are forced to take refuge in heavily damaged neighbourhoods because there’s no alternative.  It’s here where we meet two new characters.  Amara (Spaeny) is a young woman who is collecting scrap parts from decommissioned plants to build a Jaeger of her own.  Jake (Boyega) is the son of a high ranking general but instead of following his father’s footsteps, he’s turned to a rebellious life of crime.

Both are arrested and both end up in a Jaeger pilot academy situated in China.  It’s at this point where they meet Nate (Eastwood), a respected, diligent pilot with an impressive pedigree.  With the three leading characters introduced, it’s time to get to the crux of the movie.  The nasty Kaiju return via unusual means, take control of drone-piloted Jaegers, and try to use them against the human population.  There are more deaths, more destruction and more battles to be won.

My thumbs were up following the first movie but my reaction is more subdued this time around.  It’s chaos without tension.  Buildings are blown up and thousands of people run around as the big robot fights take place.  The work of the sound and visual effects teams is to be admired but with so many unnecessary subplots and very little in the way of strong character development, I cared less about how things would transpire. 

The film could have been improved with more comedy and whilst the likeable Charlie Day reprises his role as a kooky scientist, his efforts at winning laughs fall flat.  No one else picks up the slack.  The end result is a movie that’s heavy on loud, in-you-face action and light on everything else.


Review: Love, Simon

Directed by: Greg Berlanti
Written by: Isaac Aptaker, Elizabeth Berger
Starring: Nick Robinson, Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Tony Hale
Released: March 29, 2018
Grade: A-

Love, Simon
Queer cinema has often been described as “niche” but in recent years, we’ve seen a growing awareness and a growing interest from mainstream audiences.  Moonlight won the Academy Award for best picture in early 2017 and made roughly $65 million USD at the international box-office.  Call Me by Your Name picked up an Oscar nomination two months ago and made star Timothée Chalamet a household name.  Other films to make an impression have included Carol, God’s Own Country, Pride and Blue is the Warmest Colour.

The next step in the evolution of queer cinema is the release of Love, Simon.  Regardless of what you think of the film, it marks a milestone in that it’s produced by a major Hollywood studio and has had the widest ever release for a movie with a gay teenager as the leading character.  It opened on 2,402 screens in the United States earlier this month and has made $24 million at the box-office in its first 10 days (already recovering its budgeted costs).

As for the story itself, Simon Spier (Robinson) is a high school student from Atlanta, Georgia who gets good grades, has a loving family, and a select group of tight-knit friends.  We learn during the opening scene that Simon harbours a very large secret – he’s gay.  He’s know this for some time but has never had the courage to “come out” and tell anyone.  In explaining his logic, there’s a humorous sequence where he envisages a world where gay is the default and it’s straight people who must come out of the closet.

Simon finally musters up the strength to tell someone… he just doesn’t know who it is!  He responds to an online blog posted by anonymous student, going by the name of “Blue”, who talks about being gay and the problems that come with it.  Simon reaches out via his own secret email account and the two become friends.  That in itself comes with a fresh set of drama.  Looking to experience love for the first time, Simon wants to be closer but he remains unsure about Blue’s true identity and how much to reveal about himself.

There’s a part of me that wants to be highly critical of this movie.  It’s cheesy, unrealistic and formulaic.  Tony Hale (Veep) plays a farcically goofy vice-principal at the school who talks gibberish every time he appears on screen.  The two screenwriters, drawing from the 2015 young adult novel by Becky Albertalli, create drama that often feels phoney.  An example is an odd storyline where Simon is blackmailed by a friend to help add conflict and tension to the broader narrative.  Oh, and don’t get me started on the bizarre Ferris wheel finale.

These weaknesses can be forgiven for two reasons though.  Firstly, when this film works… it works!  It does a skillful job capturing the mindset of a teenager coming to grips with his sexuality.  We see a giddily happy Simon conversing with Blue via email and the relief of finally being able to confide in someone.  On the flipside, we see a nervously apprehensive Simon making the big reveal to both his friends and his family.  There’s a particularly beautiful exchange between Simon and his mother (Garner) which is reminiscent of the conversation between Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg in Call Me by Your Name.

Secondly, as corny as the film is at times, it’s of major cultural significance given big-budget studios have shied away from such material before now.  We’ve seen plenty of gay supporting characters in teen orientated movies coming out of Hollywood but this is a first.  The leading guy, and his sexuality, is such a major part of the storyline.  This is an important movie.  Judging from the laughs and screams (of delight) at the preview screening I attended, I’m not alone with that view.

It doesn’t pack the emotional punch of a grittier, more realistic film such as Moonlight but in offering the light-hearted, feel-good-about-life teen alternative, director Greg Berlanti (Dawson’s Creek) has come up with a winner.