Incredibles 2 Review

“How do you balance the superhero stuff with the life stuff?”

 

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It’s been a long time coming, but Incredibles 2 was worth the wait. I found this to be an excellent sequel that captures spirit of the first film while progressing the story and characters’ personalities and situations nicely. It’s exceedingly precise in mostly the right ways, being carefully measured down to minutia in a way that only occasionally calls attention to itself. Admittedly there aren’t a lot of new ideas here with one main underlying plot thread being a light spin on the first film, and there are some issues with falling back on outdated stereotypes. But it’s what’s done with the various elements that matter most in the end, and everything is executed well. The stereotypes are played with and moved beyond, the plot structure is there to support the themes and emotions the movie’s truly about, etc. I found the key points being made and the conflicts and issues the family was working through relatable and genuine despite the fantastical setting, which is a wonderful accomplishment.

 

 

Ant Man and the Wasp Review

“I do some dumb things, and the people I love the most – they pay the price.”

 

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I’ve really enjoyed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s take on Scott Lang and company, both in the first Ant-Man movie and Civil War. Ant-Man and the Wasp explores the fallout from both those films, and I was extremely excited for it in general as well as to see Hope take a more starring role this time around.

In a way that kind of reminds me of what was done with Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the plot scope is narrower this time around, with a single core, character driven plot driving everything. The approach is a great one for a second movie in any series, as it advances the types of issues the protagonists face and expand the general universe they inhabit while simultaneously allowing more personal, emotional developments to take center stage. Scott’s choices in Civil War have had a huge effect on his life and the people he cares about, and the film faces those consequences and the subsequent difficult choices Scott has to make head on. Also as expected (and hoped for), Hope is Scott’s equal this time around and I really liked the portrayal of both heroes, including their different approaches and complicated relationship.

That strong central plot is anchored and supplemented with great acting and a sense of humor to the film that makes it all resonate and provides several truly hilarious moments (although I’ll admit certain aspects of the comedy are getting to the point where they need to be reigned in a bit and applied with a more of a deft touch).

Ant Man and The Wasp is a movie that makes some really interesting choices, tells a complete story while setting things up for the future, and stays true to the spirit of the first film while advancing its heroes to the next level. Another strong hit for the MCU.

 

 

A Day in Mori’s Garden, and The Impending End of Innocence

Japan Cuts 2018: Mori: The Artist’s Habitat and Hanagatami

 

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2018 ran from July 19th through July 29th. I saw previously saw and wrote about Ramen Shop and Night is Short, Walk on Girl, and here I’d like to share thoughts on the centerpiece and closing films.

Also check out my features on films from 2015’s2016’s, and last year’s festivals.

 

Mori: The Artist’s Habitat

 

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This year’s CUT ABOVE Award winner for Outstanding Performance in Film was actress Kirin Kiki, who was a joy to listen to in the Q&A following the centerpiece screening of Mori: The Artist’s Habitat. Kiki plays the tolerant wife of eccentric artist Mori, who’s barely left his home in thirty years and spends his time intensely studying life in his overgrown garden. In between a constant comedic stream of visitors and delicate, incredible cinematography featuring Mori’s garden and sharing his fascination with the viewers are encroaching themes about an intruding outside world and the passage of time. A decent movie with some interesting things to say and flashes of absolute brilliance in its techniques.

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Hanagatami

I usually discuss the main feature of a showing first and then offer brief closing comments on any accompanying shorts  that preceded the film. I take that approach to place the spotlight as seems appropriate as since while often quite good and complimentary accompaniments, they are also non-essential sidebars to the viewing / discussion of the full feature.

 

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Not so in this case. The 6 minute How Can You Know Where to Go If You Do Not Know Where You Have Been stop motion short not only held it’s own being as striking and memorable as the 3 hour film that would follow, but also served as a wonderful primer for the kind of lens through which the topics of both films could (and perhaps should) be viewed. I feel that having this in front of Hanagatami had a direct impact on my viewing experience of that film in a meaningful way.

In some ways a “simple” conversation with her grandmother about the past set to animation, director Mizuki Toriya’s short contains a powerful message about remembering and sharing the past delivered through an equally important demonstration of that practice.

 

 

Having Toriya at the screening in person to introduce the short and share thoughts about she made this film was an additional bonus. She humbly apologized in advance for the limited nature of the animation, but it was in fact perfectly paired with the conversation it accompanied and impactful in a touching, genuine way. It’s not entirely fair to compare shorts with full length films, but in the interest of full honesty and credit where credit is due this was my favorite film of anything I saw at Japan Cuts this year.

 

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I have to admit I don’t think I’ll ever fully know what to make of director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s epic examination of fleeting youth as war looms. Between nonlinear storytelling, hyperrealistic visuals that are as relentless as they are striking and gorgeous, adults playing teenagers, and numerous other creative and off kilter approaches there’s a lot to absorb from Hanagatami, and it’s often overwhelming. Nothing is spelled out (save for one short unfortunate immersion breaking monologue where the film seems to realize the layers of symbolism are getting too deep and simply states what a few things represented), and I left the theater far from close to unraveling the meanings and messages beneath the strange happenings I’d just witnessed. Also, the film felt every bit of it’s length, and as I tried to process the scenes at face value, the underlying subtext that was the real point of everything, the complex emotions of all the characters as their lives forever changed, the shifting relationships and love… octagon … that seemed to be going on, etc the movie did seem to strain under its own weight at time.

And yet, I still enjoyed the movie and feel it’s an extremely good one overall. The acting, anchored by star Shunsuke Kubozuka who was present to share valuable insight into the film’s creation in a post screening Q&A, was exquisite. Kubozuka’s performance was exaggerated in a way that fit with Obayashi’s kinetic visuals and gave depth and a captivating edge to his character without going too far. Everyone around him likewise had to push certain characteristics and traits within their performances while staying grounded and they all nailed it. I felt the anxiety of wanting to see how it all turned out and wanting to understand more and more of what was happening and the movie’s message every step of the way. I didn’t get all the way there, but what I did take from the film was affecting.

 

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Imperfections and all, Hanagatami is a film I’m glad I saw that will be pulling at my mind for a long time to come. It’s a collaboration between a director and cast that were all unafraid to push boundaries the craft on display itself is as worth seeking out as the important topics and themes addressed.

 

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That’s all for this year’s Japan Cuts from me. As usual I’m extremely happy to have been able to attend and thankful to all involved. Start counting down to next year. 😉

Japan Cuts 2018: Ramen Shop and Night is Short, Walk On Girl

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2018 started on July 19th and is running through July 29th. My thoughts on films from 2015’s festival can be read starting here, 2016’s starting here, and last year’s starting here.

 

Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh)

 

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Once again I came into Japan Cuts’ opening movie unfamiliar with the director and star and without any frame of reference or preconceptions. And once again I was extremely pleased with the result. Ramen Shop is a wonderful drama where people’s lives are affected in significant ways via food and longing. It parcels its story out slowly, letting everything build from the actions and emotions of the characters in a strong example of showing versus telling. There are admittedly a couple of small oversights and parts where a little more spelling out would have been appropriate, but overall the balance of what’s implied and what’s addressed more explicitly is excellent.

The story of Masato’s (Takumi Saitoh) search for his mother’s estranged family in unfamiliar Singapore is carefully grounded and supported with his love of food and desire to understand more about the recipes that arose from the crossing of his parents cultures, as well as perfect touches of humor from Mark Lee to lighten the atmosphere whenever the film’s in danger of getting too heavy. There are serious, important topics and themes of prejudice, tragedy, acceptance and rejection, the fleeting nature of life, and parts of history often avoided that are handled extremely well, conveyed and addressed with nuance and respect by careful treatment from director Eric Khoo and excellent acting. Saitoh and Beatrice Chien have several particularly difficult, important emotional scenes and both are absolutely fantastic in them.

With the creation and love of food being so integral to the film its depiction is extremely important, and those aspects are incredible. Excellent food photography, just enough explanation of what’s being done and made, and a real sense of of why the characters relate and care so much about the creation of food all work in harmony to make these crucial elements work wonderfully.

The Q&A after the screening was great, with Khoo especially fascinating to listen to as he talked about his goals with the film, the process of working with crews and actors from two countries who couldn’t fully communicate, the uncomfortable topics he wanted to shine some light on, and several other great insights into the films creation. Saitoh was equally gracious and engaged in the conversation, and both stayed for the after party to continue to talk and meet the audience.

Overall this was a great movie and a fun night, and an excellent way to kick off this year’s festival.

 

 

Night is Short, Walk On Girl

 

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I don’t know exactly what I expected from Night is Short, Walk On Girl, but this wasn’t it. It follows college student Otome from a friend’s wedding reception out into a weird, epic night of adventures that connect and unfold in unusual, absurd ways. At times it was admittedly a bit too much for me, but I still found it interesting and engaging and it featured clever several surprises that I really should have seen coming, which is always a difficult, wonderful thing to accomplish that I adore. Also, Otome is a wonderfully strong, compelling protagonist.

A friend of mine was initially critical of certain aspects of Ramen Shop but liked it more and more the more she thought about it, and I’m having a similar experience here. It took me by surprise and while I generally enjoyed it immediately parts of it, including certain characters, content, pacing, etc, put me off a bit at first. But the more it settles in my mind and I’m able to digest it all the more I appreciate it. The animation style is striking and unique, going for exaggerated forms for emphasis often while still managing to stay grounded and create a connection with the characters. Despite some of my own conflicted and evolving feelings here Night is Short, Walk On Girl is an easy recommendation that any fan of animation should check out for themselves.

 

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Preceding this was Dreamland a five minute short film showing a constantly evolving cityscape composed of shifting rectangular shapes that felt like a kinetic M.C. Escher vision come to life. It was interesting enough, with the complex, technically precise motion paired well with the score and made for a nice pairing with the main feature.

Infinity War Review

“Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same.”

 

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I’ve essentially been waiting for a movie version of my favorite comic story for over 25 years. So even with the excellent knack the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown for balancing large casts and adapting stories as well as the roll they’ve been on with excellent films like Black Panther and Thor: RagnarokI was a bit apprehensive going into Infinity War. I’m pleased to report that I needn’t have worried.

This felt right, building on the previously established mythology of the prior movies while keeping the essence of the themes of the comics (and in some cases improving on them) and paying tribute in numerous “Easter egg” type moments that fit in this new story and didn’t feel forced. That balancing act is difficult, and kudos to all involved in pulling it off.

While some characters could have used more screen time and a couple of characterizations felt a little off compared to the characters in their own movies, overall the movie did an extremely good job of balancing the huge cast (including a well deserved spotlight on some supporting cast members) and walking the line of comedy and drama that was so important to making this story work in the MCU. The cast banters out of stress and habit, amusing the audience in the classic Marvel movie way without losing sight of the gravity of unfolding events. Thanos, one of my favorite comic villains ever, shines as a powerful foe with a distinct point of view and agenda that requires sacrifices he’s willing to make. Sacrifices that are, of course, not acceptable to our heroes leading to the promised conflict that has the proper weight and epic feel.

The work Marvel’s put into building its universe over the last decade, letting viewers get to know their heroes and follow along with what’s brought them all to this point while slowly sewing the seeds foreshadowing this tale of the war over the Infinity Gems, pays off in spades. This story couldn’t be a simple adaptation, as the preceding events, general plot setup and themes, and even the key characters involved were very different than the comics. All the careful preparation and groundwork laid out in the previous movies allowed this tale to grow organically as a proper part of this narrative universe.  Yet I think that while that true depth of Infinity War might be lost by those new to the MCU it also does a good job of establishing the stakes, cast, and plot to the point where the story could be followed by new viewers. Again, not an easy task and I’m happy to see things come together so well.

 

The way things unfold are unique enough to the particulars of the MCU that even though this is based on elements of now classic stories it’s worthwhile to avoid spoilers. So I’ll wrap up here by saying that while not perfect this was still pretty much as excellent as I could have hoped for, and I’m dying to see the sequel next year to experience the fallout and see where everything goes from here.

 

Quick Takes: Deadpool 2 and Solo: A Star Wars Story

A brief look at a couple of films I’d been really looking forward to.

 

Deadpool 2

“Well, that’s just lazy writing.

 

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Uh, yeah. So since my review of the first movie is so exactly what I think of this one too it’s time to cut and paste a bit:

“If ever there was an epitome of ‘good for what it is,’ Deadpool (2) is it.

Ridiculous, rude, and raunchy from the get-go, Wade Wilson’s over the top adventure revels in excess and absurdity. It also largely works, thanks to clever writing, self-awareness, and Ryan Reynolds’ delivery. This is no masterpiece, but it is a hilarious ride to tag along with. There’s a lot to be said for knowing what you set out to accomplish and sticking to it, and Deadpool (2) is exactly as expected in all the right ways.”

Yep, that pretty much sums it up again. Beyond that the humor alternated between hilarious and annoying, Cable and Domino were well done, the plot was strong (outside a couple glaring holes), and overall I enjoyed it. This will all get really old at some point, but not yet.

 

Next.

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story

 

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Part of the reason I’m using this format instead of a full review is I honestly don’t have too much to say about this. It was a fun way to spend a couple hours, and that’s about it. Acting was quite good and the plot held up and kept things interesting. The thing is nothing was particularly surprising, noteworthy or magical here for me. I enjoyed it, but nothing beyond that. Which is fine overall and this is definitely worth a watch, but I usually get more out of Star Wars movies.

 

Black Panther Review

“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

 

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Since the fantastic first look at Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in Civil War, I’d been eagerly anticipating this solo film and a full look at his world. It certainly didn’t disappoint, going beyond my already high expectations in a wonderfully realized film with both captivating moments of superhero action and deep, resonant themes that provide a lot to think about. This is a film that shows deep respect for culture and tradition while carefully considering the forces and necessity of change, largely through Michael B. Jordan’s fantastic showing as a villain who has validity in his point of view but flaws in his chosen course of action. Eric Killmonger’s rhetoric isn’t easily dismissed, and the moral questions he inspires in T’Challa both anchor and plague our hero’s story.

Mention should also be made of Black Panther’s excellent portrayal of women as an important part of their society in a seamless way that speaks to true respect. The new king is surrounded by several confident, powerful women who are rightfully treated as the experts they are, have significant roles in the narrative, and are amazingly brought to life by pitch perfect performances by Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letita Wright, and Angela Bassett (among others).

I’m not going to attempt a full laundry list of all the other ways in which Black Panther excels, but it’s simply excellent and continues the evolution of Marvel Cinematic Universe in important ways. It reminded me a bit of the also incredible Thor: Ragnarok, in elements like the way secondary characters are getting deeper and more nuanced development as well as (further) refining the impeccable balance of drama and humor the MCU’s known for. This is one of the very best movie’s I’ve seen in recent memory, and it’s wonderful to see a film strive for such depth and meaning while entertaining and succeed so thoroughly.