Isle of Dogs


Some dogs and their boy.

(2018) Animated Feature (Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Frances McDormand, Akira Takayama, Akira Ito, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Yoko Ono, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Liev Schreiber, Mari Natsuki. Directed by Wes Anderson

 

Those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not. The second stop-motion animated feature by Wes Anderson is so Wes Anderson.

In the future, the Japanese megalopolis of Megasaki has banished all dogs to an island formerly used as trash disposal. An intrepid young orphan boy (Rankin), who is also the mayor of Megasaki’s ward, flies to the island to locate his dog Spots (Schreiber). A pack of alpha dogs, including Chief (Cranston), Boss (Murray), King (Balaban), Duke (Goldblum) – a kind of four-legged TMZ – and Rex (Norton) along with the only female dog in the pack Nutmeg (Johansson) agree to help the boy find his friend. It doesn’t help that he speaks only Japanese while the Japanese dogs speak only English – or at least that’s how we perceive them. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Tracy (Gerwig), a school reporter, discovers a terrible secret behind the cat-loving mayor’s (Nomura) proclamation.

The look of the film owes a lot to legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and is consistently beautiful throughout, even on the industrial garbage heap that is Trash Island. The Oscar nomination it received earlier this year was no fluke even though it eventually lost out to Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. The dogs are exquisitely rendered and are genuinely hilarious. Anderson’s trademark deadpan sense of humor very much rules the day here; not everyone gets it or likes it. Bill Murray has made a career of it, including many of Anderson’s films but the two were made for each other.

This isn’t everybody’s cup of sake and I don’t think Anderson ever sets out to make a film that is. There are moments that are beautiful and others that are ugly, so young kids should be warned away due to the latter. There is a lot of Japanese cultural references here which will appeal to Japanophiles everywhere although SJW-types might mutter things about “cultural appropriation.” The bottom line here is the same as the top; those who love the works of the quirky director will love this; those who are turned off by his oeuvre will not.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is brilliant. The sense of humor is droll, a welcome change.
REASONS TO AVOID: Guilty of occasionally being too quirky for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of violence and the thematic elements might not sit well with the very young.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marked the first time in 14 years that a Wes Anderson film didn’t feature Jason Schwartzman in the cast (he did co-write the script).
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Apple TV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, HBO Go,  Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Mr. Fox
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Killbird

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Racing Extinction


Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

Bringing the Blue Whale to you.

(2015) Documentary (Abramorama) Louie Psihoyos, Shawn Heinrichs, Elon Musk, Jane Goodall, Christopher W. Clark, Leilani Munter, Ady Gil, Charles Hambleton, Austin Richards, Paul Hilton, Heather Dawn Rally, Michael Novacek, Travis Threikel, Stuart Pimm, Joel Sartore, Kirk Johnson, David Doubilet, Charlie Veron, Lester Brown, Synte Peacock, Elizabeth Kolbert. Directed by Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos, a former contributor to National Geographic (now Fox’s National Geographic), made a literal splash on the national cultural scene with his documentary/thriller The Cove, which exposed the mass slaughter of dolphins on a particular Japanese island. Now a committed marine activist, he turns his focus to a much broader issue.

We are undergoing one of the most massive carbon spikes in our atmosphere in the history of the planet; the amount of carbon in our atmosphere currently is thought to be higher than it was when the dinosaurs went extinct, a very sobering thought. One of the consequences of the increased carbon has that it has been getting absorbed by the ocean, our planet’s great filter. The result has that the ocean has been gradually become more acidic, which in turn has killed a significant amount of phytoplankton, which provides about 50% of the world’s oxygen.

There has also been a die-off of entire species, one of the worst in recorded history. Psihoyos and his band of eco-activists can show the direct link between the activities of man and the disappearance of species. He takes hidden cameras into Chinese merchants who sell endangered species for consumption – piles of shark fins piled as high as the eye can see and manta gills, taken because a group of natives in Malaysia believe that they cure cancer. Often the folk medicines of one small group can through the miracle of the internet and word of mouth become fashionable elsewhere. He also uses operatives to bust a trendy L.A. eatery for selling sushi made with endangered whale meat.

Psihoyos pairs up with tech CEO turned activist Shawn Heinrichs to expose those who are flouting the laws governing endangered species; he also utilizes some gorgeous images of whales, sharks and other marine life from cinematographers Sean Kirby, John Behrens and Petr Stepanek. Psihoyos states bluntly that part of his mission is to introduce these animals to a mass audience; hopefully getting people familiar with these species will inspire people to help save them.

While the facts that are given are sobering, the movie isn’t without a bit of fun. Psihoyos enlists race car driver Leilani Munter and projectionist Ady Gil to create mobile holographic displays on skyscrapers in New York (a demo of which can be seen above). And some of the animal footage is bound to bring a smile to your face.

There’s also the less fun stuff but is no less fascinating. Special filters allow us to see carbon and methane emissions going into the atmosphere from car exhausts, factories and cows. Like An Inconvenient Truth, Psihoyos uses graphs and charts to make his point. And while I tend to be a supporter of environmental causes, conservative readers will note that Psihoyos attributes almost all of the extinctions to man and certainly man is culpable for a lot of it, but some of the factors for some of these extinctions may be more Darwinist than capitalist.

All things considered, this is an important, serious subject which is treated with the gravity that it deserves. It does end on a hopeful note; there are things that we can do as individuals to help nurture the planet and assist in staving off a lot of the dire things that the movie refers to. I suspect that supporters of Donald Trump will probably find this an uncomfortable viewing and might write it off as liberal Pinko Hollywood alarmist propaganda. Certainly the movie has a point of view that appeals more to left-leaners. Still, this is vital viewing for all of us – the facts are indisputable and heart-breaking, particularly when you hear the warbling of a Hawaiian songbird, the last of his species, singing a mating call for a partner who will never come.

Incidentally, if Racing Extinction doesn’t play theatrically in a city near you, the movie will be broadcast on the Discovery channel later on this fall. Check your local listings for date and time. If you can’t see this in a theater – and I would urge you to so as to take advantage of some of the truly gorgeous imagery, then this would be the next best thing. Either way I would urge you to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing cinematography. Sobering but hopeful.
REASONS TO STAY: May not appeal to those leaning to the right.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is nothing trivial about this.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cop Car

Sushi: The Global Catch


The tasty simplicity of sushi.

The tasty simplicity of sushi.

(2012) Documentary (Lorber) Mamoru Sugiyama, Mike Sutton, Alistair Douglas, Casson Trenor, Hagen Stehr, Tyson Cole, Yasuhara Ida, Kazuo Nazaki, Makoto Nozue, Hiroyasu Itoh, Barbara Block. Directed by Mark Hall

Films For Foodies

It really wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t understand the appeal behind sushi. Raw fish? White rice? Yeccch. I resisted eating the stuff for a very long time. Then, at a party where that was all that was being served food-wise and I was desperately hungry, I finally broke down and tried it. I loved it. I became an instant sushi freak and have been for decades now.

Sushi started life as a cheap Japanese street food and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry. It has become one of the most popular dishes in the world, with places like China and Brazil beginning to discover it. It is insanely popular in Australia and even Europe has embraced the fish and rice delicacy.

In Japan, sushi chefs undergo rigorous training, a seven year process that requires two years alone to learn to cook the rice properly. High end knife stores in Japan supply the highly specialized sushi knives which are required to be razor sharp. Here in the United States sushi has popped up all over the country, even in the landlocked Midwest. The demand for sushi chefs continues to grow almost daily.

Demand for sushi has outstripped supply and entire species of fish are beginning to wobble dangerously towards extinction, primarily the bluefin tuna which is a highly prized species. While some limits have been enacted on fishing the species, the fact that a single bluefin can bring as much as $400,000 at market in Japan means that fishermen aren’t too choosy about following these laws.

This documentary tackles both sides of the subject, with a brief history of sushi and a look at how sushi restaurants operate in Japan, showing sushi chefs making an early morning visit to the world’s largest fish market in Tokyo; from there it moves on to the sustainability issue, how spiking demand for sushi has led to overfishing and overpricing of fish.

The first part of the movie can be a bit dry; the second half a little bit preachy. Both sides have a lot going for them, from the fascinating look at sushi preparation, and how it moved from street food to global phenomenon. This part of the film may indeed give you an appetite for sushi but the second half might well kill it. Hall isn’t able to integrate the two portions of the movie well, despite the smooth transition. Although both sections are interesting and important on their own, for some reason they are jarring when brought together. It’s like one half is saying “sushi has an honorable tradition” and the second half is “sushi has caused a great evil;” it’s sort of schizophrenic.

We do visit with the owners of Tataki, a San Francisco sushi restaurant that uses product from sustainable fisheries exclusively (which a number of other West Coast restaurants have begun to do). We also talk to scientists and oceanographers who warn that the ecosystem of the ocean has already been thrown out of kilter and reiterating grim statistics from other documentaries concerned with overfishing that  by 2048 the supply of seafood will be exhausted at current rates, a catastrophic eventuality that could lead to starvation as many cultures, particularly in Asia, rely on the sea as a main source of food.

The message of the film is not to stop eating sushi but to eat it responsibly. Make sure that your favorite purveyor of the dish gets their supply of fish from sustainable sources; if they don’t, urge them to do so. Of course, not all sushi restaurateurs know for certain if their sources are sustainable; if not, urge them to find out.

It is not too late to reverse the course of overfishing and responsible politicians and fishermen are already taking great steps to do so. Sushi lovers can also do their part by being aware of what they are eating and where it came from. While the movie here makes that important point, some may find that it uses a sledgehammer to make it when a gentle nudge would have done.

WHY RENT THIS: Draws attention to overfishing and the serious peril that bluefin tuna are in. Some nifty info about sushi chefs and restaurants.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The two thrusts of the film don’t blend well together. A little bit preachy.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some fish blood and guts.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Following the release of the film, Chevron had the case tried in an American court, claiming fraud and corruption; raw footage from the film, not included in the final cut, was submitted as evidence in the case.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an image gallery included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5,757 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Streaming only; DVD rental coming soon), iTunes, Amazon
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End of the Line
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Vacation

Ex-Machina


Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

Domhnall Gleeson holds open a door but Oscar Isaac one-ups him by holding up a wall.

(2015) Science Fiction (A24) Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Alice Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Corey Johnson, Claire Selby, Symara A. Templeman, Gana Bayarsaikhan, Tiffany Pisani, Elina Alminas, Chelsea Li, Ramzan Miah, Caitlin Morton, Deborah Rosan, Johanna Thea, Evie Wray. Directed by Alex Garland

What differentiates man from machine? One creates the other, true, but as machines grow more intelligent, able to make decisions without intervention, the difference becomes more and more narrow. We are moving clumsily but ever steadily in the direction of artificial intelligence – machines that can actually think, rationalize and eventually, feel. What will the difference be then?

Caleb (Gleeson) is a code warrior in a cubicle at Blue Book, the world’s most popular search engine who has an extraordinarily mundane life but all that changes when he wins a contest at work to spend a week in the mountain retreat of the reclusive CEO, Nathan (Isaac). The man is something of a personal hero to Caleb; Nathan had, after all, written the essential software that powers his profit-generating search engine when he was but 13 years old. Caleb in that sense is more of a late bloomer.

He’s also feeling a bit awkward when the helicopter taking him to the mansion lets him off a mile or so away; Nathan doesn’t like to be disturbed by the noises of civilization. But Nathan tries to dispel that awkwardness between boss and employee by explaining how hung over he was that morning. Looks like the two are well on the way to a bromance.

But Nathan has ulterior motives and Caleb didn’t just win a random drawing; he was chosen, selected even. You see, Nathan’s home is also something of a research facility with Nathan the sole researcher and what he’s doing is a bit of a doozy – he’s developed the world’s first artificial intelligence, giving it a female form and calling it Ava (Vikander).

And more to the point, Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to determine if she has a true A.I., one which would revolutionize science as we know it. And Ava seems to be passing with flying colors, able to draw expressively as well as discuss intelligently nearly any subject on earth, and the one subject she wants to study most of all is Caleb who is the only other human she’s seen besides Nathan.

For the most part, Caleb is amazed but he begins to get suspicious. Nathan seems to be drunk nearly all the time and the only other person in the house is the servant girl Kyoko (Mizuno) who speaks no English and is badly treated by Nathan. During one of the frequent power outages, Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not being straight with him and that he is lying about virtually everything.

Caleb is in a quandary.. On the one hand, he is at ground zero of one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, but he is not at all convinced that Nathan is completely stable – and there is the possibility that he’s being manipulated. But by whom and to what end?

Intelligent science fiction is a bit of an oxymoron in Hollywood; mostly, the studios keep their sci-fi to action packed space opera adventures, or dark dystopian nightmares that are usually – you guessed it – action packed. When one comes along like this film that gets the grey matter some exercise, it’s a pretty good day right there. That it is entertaining as all get out is an extra added bonus.

Isaac has in a very short time become an actor whose presence in a film is sufficient reason for me to go see it. He has enormous presence and here he plays a charismatic tech billionaire but one with an agenda that he keeps well-hidden, although there are plenty of red flags – the rooms that Caleb isn’t allowed to access, the non-disclosure agreement that Caleb is required to sign right off the bat, the flashes of temperament. Nathan is ostensibly the villain here but he’s no standard mad scientist – although he is the definition of one when all is said and done – but more a misunderstood genius who has become too used to getting whatever whim he has seen to immediately.

Gleeson is not yet to the level of Isaac but he is heading down that road. He was really, really good in About Time and he has that Joe Ordinary quality that makes him instantly identifiable. Sweet-natured and a bit naive, Caleb is puppy-eager to please early on but quickly establishes that he is his own man and he has a genuine moral qualm with keeping Ava locked up with the certain knowledge that his report will lead to Ava being “upgraded” which will essentially wipe clean her memory. The body will live but the soul will be gone.

The special effects are eye-popping. Considering the modest budget that the film had, it’s quite frankly amazing how they pulled off some of the effects shots that they did. Looking at Ava for example, whose mid-section, arms and legs are clear where the servo mechanisms are clearly seen as well as whatever is behind Ava at the time. I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out how they did it and I imagine it was some sort of motion capture, but that’s generally crazy expensive so I’m probably wrong on that score. The mountain forest backgrounds are pretty spectacular as well.

Garland has pulled off an impressive directing debut (he has been a novelist and a screenwriter for some time, with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later among his impressive credits) in slick fashion and seems poised to become a mover and shaker in the business. His next stint in the director’s chair is rumored to be Annihilation, also a science fiction film this time for Paramount and you can bet that there are a whole lot of studios headed his way with projects ear-marked for him – I wouldn’t be surprised if Marvel and DC will be among them.

So he has a bright future, but the present is what we’re about here. This is one incredible, impressive movie, one you’ll be talking about for weeks and months to come. If you’re a film lover who shies away from sci-fi, trust me this is going to be remembered right up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner when it comes to not just great science fiction films but great films in general.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligent throughout. Leads all do stellar work. Impressive special effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find the ending a bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: A pretty good amount of foul language, plenty of graphic nudity, a little bit of violence and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Isaac and Gleeson are featured in the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A.I.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Monsters: Dark Continent

Kill Bill: Vol. 1


Kill Bill Vol. 1

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(2003) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is hipper than just about everybody, and he knows it. That’s OK, though; the guy knows movies. He understands the art that is the “B” movie, the kind of stuff at which most critics turn up their noses, or use to play the trash hip.

Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus, a loving tribute to movies he loves and admires, from Japanese samurai flicks to film noir to anime to blaxploitation to Hong Kong martial arts movies. And he delivers it with impeachable visual sense and a crafty sense of humor. The movie is so long and complex that it was divided into two separate movies and released a year apart. While that can be absolutely fatal for certain films that have tried much the same thing (I’m looking at you, last two movies of the Matrix trilogy), the two Kill Bill films each stand on their own.

The story: The Bride (Thurman) used to be Black Mamba, a lethal assassin and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but has decided to leave the business and get married. Bill (Carradine, whose face is never seen in the first film), her former employer, disagrees and appoints her former cohorts Copperhead (Fox), Cottonmouth (Liu), California Mountain Snake (Hannah) and Sidewinder (Madsen) to send his regards. After a savage beating of the Bride and her Groom, Bill delivers the coup de grace – a bullet to her head – personally.

Fast forward four years. The Bride awakens to find everyone she loves murdered and her life over. Having been an assassin, she decides to put her talents to use against those who wronged her, leading up to her former employer. As she goes after each member of the squad, she is aided by a retired Japanese sword maker, Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), who makes her a special weapon to use in her quest.

The story is not told sequentially; it begins at the second name on her death list and goes from there. Tarantino’s jumping around in time makes sense; the first name on the list, Cottonmouth – otherwise known as O-Ren Ishii, is the more spectacular and difficult “hit” of the two presented here, and makes a far more fitting finale for this volume than would the second, which is almost anti-climactic.

Tarantino also divides the movie into chapters, with each in a different genre; from the Samurai style (the sword making sequence) to anime (the Cottonmouth backstory), blaxploitation (the Copperhead sequence) and a good, old-fashioned Hong Kong swordfight (The House of the Blue Leaves sequence that closes the film).

At each turn, Tarantino pays tribute to heroes and genres of the ’60s and ’70s, from the casting of Carradine, Liu and Chiba to the use of Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit (from his final film Game of Death) in the House of Blue Leaves chapter (of course, it’s not the actual tracksuit).

Part of the mandate for Tarrantino here is to inspire people to see the second portion of the movie, and he does that. There are interesting twists, and the fight sequences are nothing short of astonishing, particularly the House of Blue Leaves portion, and the one-on-one dual between Liu and Thurman that follows immediately thereafter. There is some wire work, yes, but it’s kept to a minimum.

The violence is gratuitous and often graphic, although sometimes almost cartoonish in nature. There are a few moments that will make squeamish sorts squirm (particularly the aftermath of the Blue Leaves portion) but the blood that fountains out of the Bride’s victims is thinner than water, for what may be a subtle joke by the filmmaker.

Thurman is almost wooden, which I think is purposeful. Her beauty and glamour are stripped away in favor of a soulless killing machine, for whom revenge has become the single point of life. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the actors either join Thurman in emotion-free fashion (Liu) or are so over the top you’d think they were making an assault on Everest (Hannah, Fox). Veterans Chiba and Carradine give restrained performances. Chiba shows why many consider him to be a gem of cinematic history. Liu, who often shows up as the old wise man with flowing white eyebrows in chop sockey films, plays much the same part.

This is a movie I admire more than I like, although I like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Da Queen said that she felt like she was in a room full of master painters — Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Rembrandt — and she had only crayons. Tarantino’s massive knowledge of film is put to good use here.

This isn’t so much a tribute, or homage as an attempt to wrap all these diverse styles into one coherent story to make a new art form, and it works most of the time. One of the calculated risks Tarantino took when he agreed to splice his film in two is that some may wind up liking the first volume only after seeing the second, and some may wind up confused or overwhelmed enough by the first to completely skip the second. That would be a shame. There will be more on the second volume in a future edition of Cinema365 but let’s just say that both movies work best in tandem with one another and while each stands alone on their own, it’s like having peanut butter without jam on your sandwich. Good, but could be better.

If you love exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, or even if you don’t, this is one of the finest action movies to come out in the first decade of the 21st century. The more often I see it, the more I like it and that certainly marks it as a classic film.

WHY RENT THIS: House of Blue Leaves sequence one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Tarantino’s extensive knowlege of genre films is utilized perfectly. Seeing faded action stars like Chiba, Carradine and Gordon Liu does the heart good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a bit wooden. The dizzying array of styles may be too much for most.

FAMILY VALUES: This is as graphically violent and bloody a movie as you’re likely to see. There are a few bad words and some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The start of production was delayed due to Uma Thurman’s pregnancy. Tarantino never considered recasting; the part of The Bride was intended for her and her alone.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos by The 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, the Japanese band that played during the House of Blue Leaves sequence.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster through and through.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Game of Death

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted