Good Will Hunting: Watching a “Classic” for the First time, 2 Decades Late

 

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I recently had some time off of work and wanted to see if I could fill in a few of my cinematic gaps. Everyone has some gaps: one of those movies that has been deemed a “classic” that everyone but you has seen and you get shamed as soon as you admit that you haven’t seen it, even though they probably have gaps of their own that they aren’t admitting to.

Anyway… one of these gaps for me had always been “Good Will Hunting.” I’ve had ample opportunities to watch it in the past, but I just never had the urge to. I felt like I’d seen it already from the onslaught of references to it that are dropped in casual conversation. In fact, hearing people drop “my boy’s wicked smaaahhhht” into conversation every time someone says something marginally coherent probably deterred me from watching this movie more than anything else for all these years.

I knew the gist of the story: a genius boy would rather hang out with his bonehead Boston friends than help change the world so now he has to go to therapy in order to squeeze out some emotional scenes that could land him an Oscar nomination. Cool. I get it.

So now that I’ve actually seen it, did it work? Is it harder for a movie to win you over if you’ve been told for 21 years that it’s one of the greatest of all time?

The answer is simple: I thought it was okay.

Yeah, being told this movie is incredible for two decades did not do it any favors. Part of the reason it became so iconic right off the bat in 1997 is because it took everyone by surprise. A pair of fresh faces in Damon and Affleck, Boston movies not really being a “thing” yet and the emergence of the Mirimax machine all came together to deliver a whallop on audiences that they never knew they wanted. If this movie comes out in 2018, it makes a few million at the box office and becomes just another Oscar-bait, feel-good movie that gets nominated for a couple awards and then is never thought about again but because it came out of nowhere in ’97, before movies of this ilk had taken over, it became a smash hit, made stars out of Damon and Affleck and snagged Robin Williams an Oscar.

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“Dude we fahkin’ made it in Hollywood!”

Here’s the thing though, watching it for the first time now, isn’t as impressive. It’s great that this movie gave us Damon and Affleck and they should be immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished but looking at this without nostalgically-tinted sunglasses, this is pretty run-of-the-mill Mirimax fare. It’s easy to get caught up and identify with Will Hunting because deep down, we’d all like to believe that we have some super special talent that separates us from everyone else (when in reality we don’t). I think people get a little self serving and believe themselves to be intelligent for watching and appreciating this movie which is crammed full of scientific jargon when in reality those are script flourishes and what we are really watching is a pretty standard melodrama about a tough-guy, boy-genius, and his sensitive therapist.

A little more nuance would have been nice. We get it, Will Hunting could have any incredible job in the world but doesn’t want one. How do they communicate that he’d rather just be a nobody from Southie? He literally works as part of a fucking demolition crew. “I don’t wanna wear a suit and crunch numbahs all day with a bunch of fahkin’ nerds. I just wanna break things with my fahkin’ hammah and drink beers with my buddies.”

Faulting the script of first-time writers kinda feels like a cheap move and it is, but couldn’t someone they worked with pause and tell them that some of it might be a little on the nose?

The movie mostly hinges on the scenes between Damon and Williams and some with Damon and Minnie Driver. The therapy scenes are fine for being as predictable as they are, “hah, dude if you think I’m gonna open up to you, you’re fahkin’ dreaming.” [10 scenes later] “Holy shit, doc. You tricked me into opening up to you and made me fahkin’ cry. You know what? You’re all right, you little fahka.”

His scenes with Driver are promising, if not a little underdeveloped. They either need to devote a little more time to their relationship or scrap the whole thing and just let this movie be the sausage fest that it’s trying so hard to pretend not to be. She’s good though! She deserved a better career! Someone get Minnie Driver back in the game!

If there’s one aspect of this movie that truly worked like a charm, it’s my man Ben Affleck. Affleck sweeps through this movie with total ease. The man is a movie star. He just is, he always was and he always will be. Obviously he can play a bonehead Bostonian in his sleep but he’s just got that Affleck charm that works so well. The scene where he shouts “RETAINER” at the corporate suits might have been the only time in the whole movie where I actually reacted out loud. And his famous “everyday, I come up to your doorstep and hope you’re not there…” blah blah blah scene is actually really good! I was so worried about it the whole movie because I loved him the whole time and I knew it was coming and thus far, none of the “classic” scenes had worked on me the way I wanted them to yet, but then, BAM, Affleck rocked me right in the face. He doesn’t ham it up, he just stands there and fahkin’ tells it like it is, very understated. What could have very easily been some eyeroll-inducing, actor-y monologue that only ended up in the script because Affleck was like “hey, I need a scene where I get to act too,” was actually the most nuanced scene in the whole movie.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t really have much to say. It feels a little bit like Damon just wishes he was this boy-genius so dreamed up this movie where he got to be one. But do we learn anything from all this? What’s the message? Life is all about finding an equitable balance between going on dates, breaking things with your sledgehammer and doing your genius research? What do you want from me Damon? I don’t think you want anything from me. I think you just want me to think of you as a cool guy who is just like Will Hunting.

So is the movie an incredible watch if you’re viewing it for the first time over two decades later? No, not really. It’s pretty good. I totally see why it made the splash that it did and I’m glad we got Damon & Affleck from it; still bummed we didn’t get more of Driver after it though (but some of that may be tangled up in the gross Harvey Weinstein spiderweb of it all). The movie does work as a whole but when you already have a sense of what you’re gonna get from it, it’s hard to be truly “wowed” by the material. None of this is the actual movie’s fault though.

In the end, I just want to see more of Ben Affleck doing goofy, bonehead Ben Affleck things while maintaining a heart of gold.

The Dark Knight Rises is the Best Christopher Nolan Batman Movie (This is not a Hyperbolic Hot-Take; This is the Truth)

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I’ll be completely honest, I was never all that into Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. I thought the movies were fine and wholly entertaining, but it always bothered me that the greatest modern film director was spending so many of his prime years making Batman movies.

After Inception came out, I was so jazzed on Nolan, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Inception was the work of someone who had a very specific passion (dreams) since they were a child and spent decades making it happen. Do you know how often “passion projects” end up being a director’s shittiest work? For every Inception or Almost Famous, we have to put up with an endless lineup of dumpster fires like This is 40, Aloha, Super 8, After Earth and so on. But Inception worked so well; I thought Christopher Nolan could do anything (and based on what you think of Interstellar [it’s great] he either can or can’t but that’s a discussion for another time.)

Unfortunately, I became completely deflated when I found out he was doing yet another Batman movie to follow up Inception. So two years went by and I saw The Dark Knight Rises. Once again, I was definitely entertained from start to finish but wasn’t blown away like I was with Inception. But back then, after I first saw it, on the car ride home with my friends, who were complaining about the ridiculous issues they had with the movie, I thought to myself, “I think that was pretty good…”

The Dark Knight Rises has been plagued over the years by fanboys breaking down every single small element of the movie that might not make sense: “How did Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham after escaping the pit??” “How can there be a program that deletes your entire electronic history??” “How would Bane know his entire convoluted plan would go off without a hitch??”

Seriously? The fanboys who worshiped the previous movie about a man who dresses up as a bat, and fights a criminal wearing clown makeup, suddenly have issues about the minutiae of the plot?

The Dark Knight Rises is a massive movie and constantly has five or six story mechanics churning all at once. If anyone can handle this, it’s Christopher Nolan, and while detractors of the movie say he didn’t, he did. He absolutely fucking did.

I re-watched this movie twice in the last few years and it blows me away with every line. I couldn’t believe how important re-watching it was. It is easier to wrap your head around Inception on a first viewing than it is to wrap it around The Dark Knight Rises on the first bout. Every single line, for the first two thirds of the movie, are absolutely essential to what happens later on; everything that is said, is said for a reason and is setting up something to come later. It honestly can be a little exhausting at times. My girlfriend (yeah, I have a girlfriend AND write about Batman; we live in a paradoxical time), stopped the movie about 12 times to regroup and ask me what was going on and why people were saying what they were saying (does it count as mansplaining if she asked me to do it?).

Because of all this, the plot is obviously very convoluted, but damn if it doesn’t work so well. This movie is patient as hell. I’m sure the studio had issues with the fact that viewers don’t even see Batman in the suit until about 40 minutes into the story but the fact that Nolan fought for that, is a testament to his storytelling prowess. When Batman finally shows up on his motorcycle, flies his Bat-Airplane and beats the shit out of faceless goons with Catwoman, you can’t help but accept that it was all worth the wait.

What works so well about this movie is that we had not yet seen Batman be challenged physically. Batman Begins brought him face-to-face with fear. The Dark Knight introduced chaos that would test his morality. But The Dark Knight Rises makes him reconcile with the idea that there will always be someone out there who is stronger than him; someone who can break him. Bane is easily the best villain in this trilogy. Not only does he have the smarts to take down Gotham and Batman, but he also has the muscle to do it without breaking a sweat.

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This is a perfect opportunity to talk about the scene. You know the scene. Bruce prematurely goes into the sewers to stop Bane before his plan can progress any further. Bruce gave up being Batman for years but knowing that he never came across a thug he couldn’t pulverize, he figures Bane will be no different. When he challenges Bane, he comes to the unfortunate realization that Alfred tried to warn him of: Bane has the fiery, fighting passion that Bruce once had but has long since abandoned it.

What we are treated to is the best fight scene in cinema. I am not being hyperbolic. The whole thing is executed perfectly because it looks like it wasn’t planned. We are currently living in a world where fight scenes are so expertly choreographed that they end up looking more like a rehearsed dance routine, than a fight. Don’t get me wrong, it’s thrilling to watch Captain America take on The Winter Soldier on the streets of Washington, in a scene that stunt coordinators clearly spent weeks putting together, but Batman’s fight with Bane is something completely bulkier and somehow better. The fight is so effective because it’s honest about what it is: two muscle-headed guys slowly slugging their fists at each other. The sound effects in this scene are a bit over-the-top but that’s only to service how brutal this fight is supposed to be. Every punch, crack, tear and gasp can be heard.

Bruce does a great job of holding his own in the fight, which is another testament to Nolan; it would be less heartbreaking if Batman took on Bane and immediately got absolutely destroyed. The fact that Bruce can land so many brutal hits but somehow still end up on the ground, getting his face mashed in, makes us even more devastated. And because of this, it’s all the more satisfying at the end when Batman beats the shit out of Bane once he knows he has to break the mask first.

Many critics of this movie say that it gets too rushed in the final act and I suppose that might be valid but it’s also why I love it. The final 40 minutes of this movie are clunky, bombastic and all-out ridiculous and when I watched it, all I could think was, “finally…” Keep in mind, these are movies about a billionaire who nocturnally fights crime in a bat costume, so what works so well about this movie is that it actually leans in to the absurd, comic book-nature of it all. Yes, Batman is going to fight a giant man who can feel no pain, amidst an army of police officers going to war with prisoners and then he’s going to stop an atomic bomb from killing everyone… oh and by the way, he also has a flying Batmobile now. This is all objectively great and it all works. Not only does it work but it has emotional heft to it; the moment where Catwoman offers to help Bruce escape the city because he’s given Gotham everything he as to offer and Bruce responds, “Not everything; not yet,” still sends chills down my spine. The audience collectively has the same thought: Holy shit. Christopher Nolan is gonna crucify Batman for our sins.

The Dark Knight is definitely a tighter and more thoughtful movie, but it leaves me wanting more payoff. Batman kicking around the Joker a little bit at the end is not nearly as adrenaline-inducing as him punching Bane, square in the face, and saying “tell me where the trigger is… then… you have my permission to die.”

If The Dark Knight is a somewhat strong guy with perfectly sculpted abs, then The Dark Knight Rises is a dude who can deadlift a refrigerator but still has a 3.6 GPA.

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

Everybody Wants Some - Movie Trailer Review - Visit MovieholicHub.com

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.

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.