Wednesday, September 28, 2016

[Review] April and the Extraordinary World

Co-directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, and produced by the creators of the excellent Persepolis, this animated French sci-fi film April and the Extraordinary World has a lot on its mind.

In an alternate universe to 1940s Paris, the city runs on burning coal, and scientists are being captured by dark forces in order to research weapons for government. The brilliant April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) is a chemist living in secrecy with her talking cat Darwin. Spies, conspiracies, a search for parents, and the creation of a vital serum propel this twisty plot.

The smooth animation is constructed with crisp lines of meticulous detail. And fittingly, the backdrop of Paris along with its rulers are rendered in hazy greyscale, while the citizens and main characters are accentuated with beiges and deep reds, as if they're the only signs of life in a drab dystopia. The film certainly lives up to the "extraordinary" in its title. Tinged with a steampunk aesthetic and sci-fi eccentricity, the story sweeps into distinctly realized settings with frenetic chases and booming action. It's not afraid to get weird, either. The second half contains talking lizards that look like Dinobots. Seriously.

The narrative floats by with an ecological bend concerning energy and resources, as well as a hypothetical revisionist spin on technological developments. It's also an ode to the important powers of invention and innovation. April and the Extraordinary World didn't make me laugh super hard, nor did it strike heavy emotional gears like some of the bigger animated films from this year, but its wholly unique vision makes it worth the experiment.

( 7.5/10 )

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

[Review] My Blind Brother

Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, and Adam Scott are the sticky love triangle in Sophie Goodhart's mildly funny comedy of sibling rivalry, My Blind Brother.

Bill (Kroll) is the self-described "lazy and resentful" brother, playing second string to the overachieving, beloved-by-parents, marathon-running champ Robbie (Scott), who happens to be blind. The competition between them ramps up even more when they both fall for a bubbly yet self-loathing woman named Rose (Jenny Slate), who's in the process of trying to sort out her life.

This is definitely a funny cast, which is why it's sort of disappointing that they don't really flaunt their comedic chops much here. Sure, there are a few good chuckle-worthy jokes along the way, as well as some dreadfully awkward moments, but nothing really hilarious. What the film does do well, though, is forming these characters, especially as jealousy games ensue, and keen observations on pre-judgment, guilt, selfishness, regrets, and intensely mixed feelings arise. The narrative essentially becomes a character-driven exploration of pity and superficiality. Zoe Kazan also contributes an amusing supporting performance as Rose's blunt roommate, and I would've liked to see more of her in this.

There's a third act twist that is both poignant and highly revelatory. It's a solid reveal that makes you re-think everything in the story up until this point, and it also breathes a new sense of dynamics between these two brothers. And no--the twist isn't that Robbie isn't truly blind or something. Come on, this isn't the Stevie Wonder story! Anyway, My Blind Brother is a film that grows on you and goes the distance during its heartfelt conclusion. But as far as recent brotherly dramedies go, it doesn't quite reach the hilarity and tenderness of the overlooked and underrated Mark and Jay Duplass film, The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012). However, I'd rank it alongside Jeff, Who Lives At Home (another Duplass bros film). So if you like the those films, you should check this one out.

( 7.5/10 )

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Monday, September 26, 2016

[Review] The Magnificent Seven

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) is fully game for this gleefully wild retelling of the Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven (1960) story. Stacked with a revamped cast, we're blessed with: Bounty Hunter (Denzel Washington), Gambler (Chris Pratt), Sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), Assassin (Byung-hun Lee), Outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Warrior (Martin Sensmeier), and Tracker (Vincent D'Onofrio). And thankfully, it's all a rootin' tootin' blast.

A despicable fella named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, thoroughly unlikable) is besieging towns and slaughtering locals. When Emma Cullen's (Haley Bennett) husband is brutally murdered in cold blood, she makes a proposition to a ruggedly smooth man in black (Washington), who rounds up a diverse bunch of highly skilled ragtags for a near-impossible mission to end Bogue's tyranny.

The opening of the film gets off to a shaky start, but as soon as I saw Denzel Washington's mutton chops grace the screen, I knew everything was gonna be alright. This film saddles up as a complete crowd-pleasing exertion of unabashed ownage. Fuqua reaps an unruly, violence-ridden environment where everyone is ready to pull a trigger at any second if someone so much reaches for a whiskey flask (or blinks). Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if the babies were stashing revolvers in their diapers.

The well-staged combat scenes warm us up as we witness the crew showcase their prowesses and eventually utilize them in the heat of battle. Amusingly, the gang of seven even compare their kill counts, Gimli and Legolas style (Lord of the Rings). Everything climaxes in an epic non-stop shootout. It's such a rowdy, savage, and elongated sequence that it almost becomes comical (in a good way) as countless bullets whizz by, dynamite explodes, and blood is spilled in an all-out frenzy.

Like most ensemble pieces in this fashion, some characters get more shine and development than others--although they all still leave more of an impression than most of the Suicide Squad. At the forefront, Denzel Washington's Sam Chisholm leads the way with his undying charisma as the story's noble hero, while Chris Pratt carries over his quippy action chops from Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy. Vincent D'Onofrio rolls out like a mix between Nick Nolte and Winnie the Pooh. The soft-spoken ball of fur recites scripture while jamming axes through unsuspecting skulls. Ethan Hawke plays a haunted sniper with a shotgun, and it's cool to see him reunite with his Training Day co-star. I also have to mention Haley Bennett's character--she's no pushover or damsel in distress, and she plays a significant role in the film which likely amounts to a star-making performance.

So if you want to see Martin Sensmeier take a bite out of a deer's heart, Byung-hun Lee swiftly fling knives at derogatory southerners like it's nothing, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo clear out an entire saloon by himself, then this movie is for you. Of course it isn't a new tale (were you expecting it to be?). But with a firm grip on Western cinematic traditions, The Magnificent Seven (2016) is an entertaining and well-paced adventure that gets the job done, and then some. It's hard to believe that someone would go see this and not have a fun time. Pardon me--I meant a rootin' tootin' blast.

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

[Review] Our Little Sister

The ever-consistent Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda follows up Like Father, Like Son with Our Little Sister, another sweet and low-key tale of complicated familial dynamics.

Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino Kouda (Masami Nagasawa), Chika (Kaho) are three sisters living together in their grandparents' home. Early on, they learn that their estranged, runaway father has passed away. So they travel to the funeral with no real strong feelings, but in the process, they meet and befriend their 14-year-old half-sister Suzu (Suzu Hirose) and all of their lives are changed.

Given the premise, and the fact that this is a film that begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral, it's not as melodramatic as you might expect. There's a light tone of gaiety with some gentle humor mixed in. But it is still very meditative and observational, as the (now four) sisters reflect on their father's life and what they know about him, while also attempting to fill in the blanks for what they don't know about him. Inherent rifts subtly rise to the surface as new information is revealed, and as the siblings attempt to reconcile the conflicts regarding their different mothers.

Along with all the great performances, the film is crisply shot and impeccably framed, displaying some beautiful changing-of-seasons scenery--especially the views of white Spring blossoms and colorful falling Autumn leaves. It's also backed with an elegant, moving musical score. A few scenes float by where it seems like not much is happening (the small talk effect), and that can be a bit trying over the film's two-hour plus length. That said, we feel like we really know these people by the end.

At its heart, Our Little Sister is a patient and touching portrait of sisterly bonds.

( 7.5/10 )

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

[Review] The Dark Horse

"Stability. Stability. Stability."

Thankfully, this multi-award winning New Zealand film has finally seen its US release. Directed by James Napier Robertson, The Dark Horse tells the real-life story of a truly unique character named Genesis "Gen" Potini, who's portrayed terrifically by Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis.

Genesis (Cliff Curtis) is fumbling homeless man. His backstory is mostly kept a mystery early on, but we do learn that he's a legendary chess player (nicknamed the titular The Dark Horse). Amidst his struggles, he finds purpose in teaching a local chess club for troubled kids, in hopes to take them to the championships games. All the while, he attempts to steer his nephew (played by James Rolleston, who starred in Taika Waititi's wonderful coming-of-age film Boy) away from a local gang.

Shot very matter-of-factly with handheld camerawork, The Dark Horse carries a deep sense of clout and realism. Storywise, it feels like a gritty and heavier (and R-rated) version of a Disney underdog flick like the recent McFarland, USA or Million Dollar Arm. And that's not a bad thing. Layered with pathos, the tone successfully navigates between lines of feel-good and tragedy. The narrative deftly deals with some tough and affecting scenes of violence and bouts with mental illness, while also displaying glimmers of hope and determination for all the characters involved.

We're rooting for Gen in every single way, and it definitely helps that Cliff Curtis gives such an excellent tour de force performance. It's nuanced, emotional, and believable. He certainly earns the accolades. He also drops some of the best chess-applying-to-life monologues since "The Wire".

Much like Genesis Potini, this diamond in the rough of a film deserves a chance.

( 8/10 )

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