Why Are You So Mad That Star Wars is Changing?

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This isn’t something I really thought I would or even want to write about but in the wake of recent events, it seems like the right time to do it. When it comes to Star Wars movies, I’m completely indifferent. I don’t have particularly strong feelings about them in any direction. Having said that, being indifferent to Star Wars somehow makes me a “hater” because of how much its rabid fanbase comparatively loves it. To me they always seemed like okay movies; I saw them when I was a kid but didn’t connect with them all that much, so I don’t have this burning nostalgia for them in my heart that others who really grew up on them do. I thought lightsaber battles were cool but that was about the extent of it.

Star Wars rarely seems to break into the realm of legitimately “good” movies. What works for Star Wars is that it is incredibly imaginative and because of that, they have a giant impression on children, who (and I know this hurts, fanboys) are the target audience for these movies. Yes. Star Wars, at its core, is a movie for kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The reason fanboys get so angry about Star Wars is their refusal to accept that. They enjoyed it when they were kids but they are not kids anymore, so when this franchise deviates from the established formula that they are nostalgically comfortable with, they throw a fit.

This isn’t all Star Wars fans. I am sure the vast majority of them are well-adjusted adults who have no problem with the franchise changing beyond Luke fighting Darth Vader. The problem is, well-adjusted people don’t make the news. No one wants to hear about people who politely enjoy things. Unfortunately, a loud minority of racists and misogynists are going to make the news every time, no questions asked. These are the folks that don’t want change. Change is different. Change is scary. Change is hard to embrace. It’s much easier to eat at McDonald’s every night because you know what you’re getting and that’s the same mentality that has driven these Star Wars fans insane; it’s as if McDonald’s changed their menu and that is unacceptable to them. So they have decided to viciously attack something they claim they love very dearly.

Just take a look at what has happened only in the last few months: Kelly Marie Tran (who was wonderful to watch in The Last Jedi) had to leave Instagram due to awful vitriol from “fans” of Star Wars, director, Rian Johnson has received numerous death threats for making The Last Jedi not fit smoothly with what is expected, no demanded, by the “fans” in a Star Wars movie and now there is a boycott of Solo, the newest movie, because these “fans” hate Kathleen Kennedy for trying to tell new stories within this universe. The message is clear and I’ve said this loooooooong before all of this ridiculous backlash took place: these fans do not actually want “new” Star Wars movies, they just want the same ones over and over again with a slightly new coat of paint to keep it a little fresh. They want it the way it was when they were kids; if it isn’t exactly like that, then it is not Star Wars.

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It’s mind-bending to think about. You have an imaginative franchise that takes place across a vast galaxy of planets and all you want to do is keep going back to Tatooine and the Death Star?? It wasn’t interesting at all to see an old and bitter Luke Skywalker? You just wanted him to come and save the day, yet again? How is that interesting at all? You had three whole movies of that exact thing already.

A friend once said to me, “but that’s not who Luke Skywalker is; he would never act like that.” Why not? He’s fucking made up. They can make him do whatever he wants. It’s not like they completely bastardized him; he didn’t grow a tail and breathe fire… a bad thing happened to him and they explained why that made him bitter. What’s the disconnect? You are absolutely allowed to not like it; you can even hate it, but you cross a line and make a complete fool of yourself when you threaten to assault anyone who was involved in making that creative choice.

You don’t own Star Wars. Nobody does (well, Disney does). Toxic fandom is nothing new. These are the same kinds of people that sent Damon Lindelof death threats because they didn’t like the finale to Lost. I get it, you love these properties and franchises and you get nervous about them being tampered with; you have an idea in your head of how they should play out and you get angry when it doesn’t go that way. But don’t you want to be surprised? Don’t you want to say, “wow, I never saw that coming!” If you perfectly guessed how an entire movie or TV show will play out, aren’t you upset that you knew the whole thing before it even started? You should want to be surprised. You should want to see new faces and new situations. I know you like The Force Awakens because it rehashed all the Star Wars tropes you already loved but do you really want to keep seeing the exact same movie over and over and over and over again for the next 50 years?

Kubo and the Two Strings is the Kind of Movie We Need More of

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Kubo and the Two Strings has a lot going for it: breathtaking visuals, an easy-to-follow story, a lovable underdog hero and a stacked voice cast. But before I even saw it, I knew it would flop at the box office. I think there’s something about Laika’s animation style that doesn’t sit right with the general public. Audiences are used to the squeaky-clean stylings of Disney, Dreamworks and Pixar. Laika’s animation is not only stop-motion (which could turn off some viewers) but it also just looks a little grimier, but that works in its favor, especially for creepy fare such as Coraline or The Boxtrolls, but somehow in Kubo, that grime brings out a natural beauty in the production design.

The plot is incredibly straightforward and basically plays out like a video game. Kubo must journey to find a magical sword, breastplate and helmet, each one guarded by some sort of “boss” he needs to defeat or outsmart to ultimately take down his grandfather, the Moon King, in the final battle. If Kubo is defeated, the Moon King will take Kubo’s eye (he already took one at Kubo’s birth) and become immortal. Along the way, Kubo will be joined by his two sidekicks, Monkey and Beetle, and will also have to battle with the Moon King’s two henchmen at various points in his quest. There’s not much more to it than that; it isn’t all that different from a Legend of Zelda video game structure.

A straightforward story can be great though; of course it can be immensely satisfying when something complicated, like Inception, comes together in a grand finale, but not every movie needs to shoot for that. Kubo is content to tell Japanese folklore in the exact manner it needs. If anything, I would have loved for the quest to go on even longer. Show me a few more boss battles and adventures. It feels like as soon as the three main characters start to click, we enter the climax and have to start saying goodbye.

Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are both great in their roles as the antithesis of one another’s personality. It’s really fun to hear McConaughey play a goofier role than we’ve seen from him in the last few years; it took me a while to remember that he has good comedic timing. How could he not after a string of rom-coms in the mid-2000’s? (Spoilers) He is so effective as a man-turned-beetle that the moment his character finally remembers who he once was, right before he bites the dust, is a genuinely touching bit and works infinitely better than any of the ham-fisted, tear-bait nonsense from Inside Out (go ahead, disagree. You’re wrong).

There are a few standout scenes, from a visual standpoint, that come to most people’s minds when reflecting on the movie: the giant skeleton battle is pretty thrilling and the final sequence where Kubo takes on the Moon King alone is a dazzling spectacle but the grandest of all is the series of events on the water. The animation of Kubo crafting a large ship out of leaves using his strings (I forgot to mention, Kubo has magic strings that can manipulate small objects) is a marvel and then it leads right into one of the film’s most expertly choreographed combat scenes between Monkey and the Moon King’s evil twin daughters as Kubo’s ship collapses. It’s incredible to watch and remember that it’s all stop-motion. Perhaps the most chilling of all during this sequence is while the battle above the water rages, Kubo must steal the magic breastplate from a giant sea monster with hundreds of giant eyes that attempt to hypnotize him until he drowns. This sceneis legitimately chilling to watch as Kubo goes lower and lower into the ocean and the number of eyeballs on him multiplies. The movie never quite recaptures the sheer magnitude of spectacle from those scenes but they alone are worth watching it for.

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Some controversy about the whitewashing of the cast erupted as the movie was released and I think those concerns are legitimate, considering this is a classic piece of Japanese folklore but I applaud director, Travis Knight, and the whole Laika team for handling the material with so much affection. At the very least, the movie we are presented with is a great watch and comes from a place of earnestness, even though this may not have been a story for white folks to tell.

Stop-motion animation doesn’t really exist in any mainstream kind of way anymore. This year alone, we saw Early Man flop at the box office and Isle of Dogs, while a wonderful movie, isn’t something built for mainstream audiences. It would have been great for Kubo and the Two Strings to take off at the box office and show people that great animated movies don’t have to come from Disney or Dreamworks. They don’t have to pander but can challenge. Travis Knight and his team have moved on from animation (at least for now) to helm the Transformer’s spin-off, Bumblebee. While this is a bummer for the future of stop-motion, it may be a glimmer of hope for the Transformers franchise… but that’s not exactly what I’m interested in from such a unique voicein filmmaking right now.

Primal Fear – Can a Movie So Stuck in the 90’s be Enjoyed Today?

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High school is a pretty good time to start watching Edward Norton’s hot streak of movies from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. They’re often very serious and not all that subtle. That’s a perfect combination for a high school-aged kid; you get to watch adult movies that deal with mature themes that don’t run too deep so that you don’t miss any real subtext. Norton hit the apex of this with Fight Club: the ultimate high school movie. It has big performances, enough pseudo-intellectualism to kill a liberal arts student and a crazy fucking twist. Even at age 16, I was able to look at Fight Club and think to myself, “Nah. This is a piece of shit.”

No matter how some of his movies turned out, Norton is an undeniably magnetic performer. He can play intensity with ease, as many dramatic actors can, but also slip into softer characters with just as much success (something over-acclaimed actors like Leonardo Dicaprio and Jack Nicholson are genuinely terrible at). The movie that allows Norton to flex both of those muscles is his big screen (and Academy Award nominated) debut in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of murdering an Arch Bishop in Chicago. Richard Gere plays the lead character, Aaron’s lawyer, and honestly gives what should be hailed as one of his career’s best performances, but gets overshadowed by Norton’s meatier supporting performance (ain’t it always that way?). What we get, is a relatively standard courtroom thriller with just enough twists and turns in its pocket to keep you interested, buoyed by powerhouse performances.

What struck me as I re-watched it for the first time in at least 5 years is just how 90’s it is. Yes, there are the shaggy haircuts, parted down the middle, the goofy-looking suits and actors like Maura Tierney (who isn’t given enough to do) and Laura Linney (who should have rocketed to fame after this) to remind us that this movie was made right in the thick of the 90’s but there are also some indescribable features that place us in that decade. Maybe it’s the music cues, maybe it’s just the general swagger people held back then, I’m not sure, but if you showed this movie to someone without any prior knowledge, it’s likely they’d guess it was made somewhere between 1994 and 1998.

So, does it hold up, despite being undeniably 90’s? To be honest, I’m never quite sure what “holding up” means. Yes, there is the direct interpretation of, “is it still a good movie, all these years later,” but everyone seems to have their own take on what it means. It’s definitely dated but I also think it still works. The performances aren’t any less captivating today and the story structure still works well enough. So, if that’s the case, what would have to happen for a movie not to “hold up?” Short of new social and societal revelations, I see no reason why a movie should work in one decade and crumble in another.

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Primal Fear’s biggest asset is its performances and characters. Gere’s Martin Vail actually has layers that go beyond the normal “hot shot lawyer” archetype, not many layers… but layers nonetheless. Even the supporting players, like Andre Braugher have backstory that doesn’t smack you in the face. For a blunt courtroom drama about a sociopathic murderer, there is a fair amount of restraint at play.

Of course, Norton runs away with the movie, thanks to his character’s mid-story revelation of multiple personality disorder, but the snappy dialogue between the rest of the characters keeps you watching almost as much. There’s a certain composure these actors hold, that keep them from getting bogged down by some of the cheesier lines they’re forced to spit. And the quippy banter? As always, when quippy banter is done right, it’s nothing short of delightful.

Tommy: That’s the worst bullshit story I’ve heard in my entire life.

Martin: Now it’s our bullshit story.

I was talking about this movie with a friend once who said it was the perfect kind of movie to remake in the modern era. At first, I was intrigued by the idea, maybe giving it a new coat of paint could revitalize it for a new generation. Throw Bradley Cooper into Gere’s role, stick Scarlett Johansson in Laura Linney’s place and find a fiery new talent for Norton’s role… why not? But then I firmly stood against the notion. Beyond the fact that studios don’t make movies for $30 million anymore, this movie can’t be remade now because it would be trash. It should have been trash in the 90’s but it isn’t. Thanks to the right talent all coming together, the material is elevated to something much better than it had any right to be. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Look what happened to Total Recall, another clinically 90’s movie. When they tried to update it for the modern era with new actors, all of a sudden it became clear that it was the talent involved that made that cheesy movie work, not the convoluted story.

After watching it again, it became clear to me that Primal Fear doesn’t really have anything to say. It boils down to being an entertaining-as-hell film adaptation of a murder mystery novel you would probably see sitting on your grandma’s coffee table, with a menacing ending that I legitimately never saw coming (at age 16, at least). To me, that’s fine. Maybe not every movie has to be a musing on what it means to be human or what makes someone crazy (maybe we’re the crazy ones!!). Some movies can just be about a killer in a courtroom. Nothing wrong with that.

Everybody Wants Some!! One of the Most Charmingly Annoying Movies I’ve Ever Loved

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This one is just a plain ol’ gem. While it essentially exists as a middle-aged man looking back on his college years and only remembering the best parts, it is pretty damn fun to watch. It took me a few viewings (I’ve gone through this movie more times than I should) to understand that these characters aren’t really supposed to be that lovable… most of them are entitled assholes who you probably met and hated in college. Having said that, it would be hard to find a movie where the cast has better chemistry than this one; they obviously love spending time with each other and it shows. Even if you find EWS exhausting at the beginning, what with its absurd fetishization of college life, the swagger and charm of its cast will wear you down.

Hollywood has been hyping up college to kids for decades and while this movie does its fair share to pile on to that, it approaches the subject matter with a little more delicate nuance. The characters love to drink and get girls but honestly, it’s entirely possible that, that was Richard Linklater’s college experience in the early 80’s.

The obvious standout here is Glenn Powell as Finn, the charming, pseudo-intellectual you definitely met five times in college. He’s the character you most want to be and also the one you’d probably want to tell to shut up after he rambles about his theories on Dante for ten minutes. The obvious weak point is Blake Jenner as Jake, the lead character, which seems to be a recurring issue in Linklater’s movies recently: Ellar Coltrane started out pretty charmless and eventually became insufferable in “Boyhood,” and here, Jenner is pretty monochrome from start to finish, and not even in a way where he grounds the rest of the wackier characters in reality… he just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the actors. Put Wyatt Russell in his role, or at least someone that I believe A) has played baseball once in their life and B) acted in something other than Glee.

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Linklater, as he has done many times in his career, seems to be out to prove that “plot” is overrated and he’s right to think so. There’s no overarching goal these characters have, they’re just having as much fun as possible during those glorious few days when you show up to college but classes haven’t started yet. He proves that if you create a cast of characters that feel real and put them in a fully-realized setting, you can get away with just letting them exist, in fact, you probably should. There doesn’t need to be a ham-fisted plot about them earning enough money to save the team or having to win the big game so they can go to the playoffs, they can just exist without the need for some climactic payoff.

Much like my real days in college, hoping that classes wouldn’t actually begin and I could just hang out with my friends all day, every day; I spent this whole movie, dreading the idea that it would eventually end and that the characters would have to go to class and I’d have to leave the theater. In a theatrical landscape where many movies are overlong and overstuffed with lore and in-references, I find myself playing “fantasy film editor” and trying to figure out which scenes could be cut or trimmed so I’m not in the seat for way over two hours but here, I was bummed out by the constant reminder that the characters’ long weekend was rapidly coming to a close.

I would be totally game for Linklater to make direct sequels to this movie on a regular basis because I know it wouldn’t grow tiring. What works about the movie isn’t some clever storyline or hook that can be ruined with a continuation. What works is the comradery and that will never get old. Show me more weekends of these guys; show me what else they do! The parts that work best are not the slightly toxic party/girl chasing scenes, but the scenes of them day drinking on a Saturday afternoon. They feel authentic. The scenes of the WILD AND CRAZY parties sometimes feel not too far off from an American Pie movie, and only the charm of the cast brings them back to reality, especially when it borders the line of parody: “let’s get these girls to mud wrestle!!,” and “theater kids are so weird!”

It would be totally reasonable for someone to find this movie and its characters completely insufferable, but I would argue that most college students are pretty insufferable, no matter what their personality is. I would understand if someone had a hard time watching these entitled douchebags get whatever they want, especially in the semi-forced subplot of Jake meeting his first love in the thoughtful, legitimately interesting and intelligent Beverly (Zoey Deutch) despite the fact that there is literally nothing interesting about him.

EWS is far from indicative of what the real college experience is and one could argue that it inflates male egos quite a bit, but you can’t take away the fact that this movie, at its core, clicks into what a bunch of guys hanging out is really like sometimes and as a guy who has spent a lot of time hanging out… it was fascinating to see it portrayed so accurately.

Overlooked Gems from the Last Few Years (Part 2)

As I did before, I just want to give some quick shout-outs to some movies that came and went, without much recognition, that deserved a little more attention. They could be great movies or just ones that have more to chew on than the world realized at the time.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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From the directors of Crazy, Stupid Love, writer Robert Carlock (showrunner of 30 Rock), and starring Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an unexpectedly tense movie that was sold as something else. Understandably, the studio didn’t know how to market this movie; with such a high caliber, comedy background, it seemed to make sense to advertise it as a goofy satire of the war against terrorism in the Middle East. Yes, there are plenty of comedic flares to this movie but it certainly isn’t a comedy.

WTF is far more of a tense meditation on how journalists cope with the stress of living in a war-zone for the once in a lifetime opportunity to make a name for themselves (I majored in journalism in college and jumped ship at the last second… you spend your entire career trying to establish yourself in an overcrowded, dying medium; I totally get why a journalist would take this opportunity). Tina Fey gives far and away her best film performance here and that is obviously aided by the script from her longtime collaborator, Carlock, who knows exactly what her strengths are. The movie is a little wobbly and probably could have used a little more time in the oven but if you were turned off but the goofy trailers, try giving it a shot, you will likely be surprised by the final product.

Midnight Special

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Following up 2013’s nearly-perfect, Mud, would be an impossible task for director Jeff Nichols… and it was. Nichols came back in 2016 with two films: Midnight Special and Loving. Both deserve a larger conversation than they were given at their time of release, even though neither of them quite live up the powerhouse film that Mud was.

Midnight Special paints a very tense and mysterious picture for the viewer and is a promising look at what Nichols can do with an expanded budget (mind you, it only cost $18 million, but that’s the biggest budget he’s ever worked with). It feeds you lots of breadcrumbs and gives you half ideas that you expect to pay off later. Without spoiling anything, it doesn’t quite pay off in the satisfactory manner that we have become accustomed to. I applaud Nichols for giving us as little exposition as possible; he trusts that the viewer is intelligent enough to piece things together or at least get a general concept of what’s going on. Because of this, we don’t have to deal with too much awkward dialogue where characters state things that all the other characters already know, just to fill us in.

Michael Shannon works well with Nichols, as always, and does a great job as the rock of the movie, portraying Roy Tomlin, the weary father of a boy with vaguely-defined supernatural abilities. Joel Edgerton (who seems to be working as often as James Franco these days) is a solid addition to the cast as the muscle of the getaway operation. For most of the movie, we’re served a long-term chase where we learn bits and pieces of what this mysterious boy is capable of. He can mentally tune into the radio, he can hypnotize people with his eyes, although we are never quite sure what this does, and in one scene, he is able to telepathically pull a satellite from space and crash it down to earth (we never see him use any abilities this powerful again in the film which is strange because if he has that kind of power, he could probably use it to take down some faceless henchmen with ease). Overall, we are treated to a kind of movie that we rarely ever see: fully realized to the creator but almost intentionally hidden from the audience to create an air of mystique.

Again, it does not provide the most satisfying conclusion in the world but damn is it creative. This is one you can definitely revisit on multiple occasions to find new hidden secrets.

Loving

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If Midnight Special is Nichols at his most mysterious (and he’s been plenty mysterious in the past), Loving is him at his most straightforward. It’s unfortunate that I have to admit this but I didn’t know anything about this story before I saw this movie and I honestly cannot believe this story, about how an interracial married couple, was breaking the law, simply by being married, isn’t something more people talk about.

This could, perhaps, be called Nichols’ attempt at Oscar glory but I don’t think it comes off that way. In the end, the film received a Best Actress nomination for Ruth Negga (who is undeniably great), but it really doesn’t play as Oscar-bait. Don’t get me wrong, the elements are all there but Nichols never goes for the sweeping “Oscar Moments.” He simply tells the story; he lets the material speak for itself and it’s an honorable notion, even if it did leave this film as an afterthought to most people.

The performances between Negga and Joel Edgerton as the titular Loving family are pitch perfect. They don’t seem like two people whose personalities would click, what with Mildred (Negga) being so soft and warm while Richard (Edgerton) is the epitome of a gruff, “rough around the edges” kind of guy but ultimately just wants to do right by his wife and kids.

What speaks volumes about this movie is how well it all works without it trying to entertain. It also doesn’t go bleak; it gets depressing and at time feels hopeless but (at the risk of sounding too cliché for my own good) there is a pervading sense of love throughout that really holds it all together. The moment where Loving’s attorney, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) asks “Is there anything you’d like me to say to the supreme court justices of the United States?” and Richard responds, simply “Yeah. Tell the judge I love my wife.” Is a chillingly beautiful moment that reminds us of the importance of this movie better than almost anything that was rewarded at the Academy Awards that year.

I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Isle of Dogs

 

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There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.

I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.

I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.

Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.

But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.

Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).

The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.

So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.

So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.

I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.

When We First Met is a Charmingly Odd Piece of Cinema

 

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When We First Met is a true testament to the sheer force of nature that Adam Devine brings. For a movie that should be, at its best, “passably enjoyable while it’s on in the background,” Devine works 110% to bring it up to “passably enjoyable while you actually watch it.” It’s almost remarkable how hard he works to try to bring this movie up from mediocrity; his relentless effort is more interesting to watch than the actual movie around him is. He didn’t have to try so hard; he easily could have phoned it in and taken his Netflix paycheck and been on his merry way, but he doesn’t… he genuinely wanted to raise the bar for this movie and because of that, I have an incredible respect for him.

The movie functions as a rom-com Groundhog Day, in which Noah (Devine) needs to re-live the same night he meets Avery (Alexandra Daddario), the love of his life who friend-zones him because he waited too long to make a move. Of course, hilarity and hijinks ensue, or at least that’s what the movie attempts. Each time Noah goes back in time, he has a new method of flirtation he’s trying which leads to various different futures for him and Avery with equally varying amounts of amusement for the viewer.

Other than Devine, what helps sell the movie is how damn earnest it is. Its naïve charm works to its favor which is almost refreshing. In another world, there is a gross-out, hard R-rated version of this movie that would be an absolute slog to sit through. A version with constant F-bombs and genital references to cover up the lack of anything interesting. It was nice to watch something that was so unabashedly PG-13. Having said that, just because you’re PG-13, doesn’t mean you can’t take any risks. The movie’s biggest flaw is how squeaky clean it is even when it tries to deal with adult themes like sex, one-night stands, hookup buddies and drinking. In one timeline where Noah becomes hookup buddies with Avery after trying out a “douche” persona to woo her, he asks her what her favorite sex position is, but the movie is afraid of anything beyond a parental, focus-group approved impurity, so she never responds. “Yes, they can briefly talk about sex existing, as long the nice girl doesn’t admit to enjoying anything too salacious.” You can be 100% PG-13 and still try to have fun with it. The movie is essentially for high schoolers and everyone knows how much high schoolers love content that their parents approve of.

Ultimately, the movie continues to ride along on the charm of Devine alone. The rest of the cast just tries to anchor the world around him with varying success. Though she’s basically given nothing to do, Daddario is a pretty perfect choice as the girl Noah just can’t seem to get it right with but her fiancé, played by Robbie Amell, is about as interesting as a wooden plank. Why not make some of the other characters slightly interesting? Give them a personality of something more than just “person for Devine to bounce off of.” There is a good cast in here: use it! At the very least, Shelly Hennig gets to play a few more notes than the rest.

This movie accomplishes what it sets out to be: something that is on and offends no one. The problem is with that is it’s such a dreadful goal to have, let alone achieve. Of course, I don’t want the R-rated version but it would be nice to see this movie maintain its romantic earnesty while still showing us something even slightly exciting. I can see the executives trying their hardest to make this something pleasant to watch for everyone (maybe slightly skewering towards teens) but when you make something for everyone, you end up making it for no one. That’s why you have to hire Devine to lift the entire thing up on his shoulders and carry you. If we don’t get scenes where he thinks he knows the piano but doesn’t or him drunkenly exclaiming he has a “play-doh” face, or anything else he throws himself into, then there would really be nothing worth even mentioning about this movie. At the very least, we can say, “damn, Adam Devine really wants me to like this movie.”

It really is a testament to Devine: you can replace any actor with someone else and it wouldn’t make a difference but if you lose him, you should really just shut down production.