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Josh Reviews Isle of Dogs

May 3rd, 2018
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I adored Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s first foray into stop-motion animation from back in 2010, and so for quite some time I have been anticipating the release of his follow-up, Isle of Dogs, which Mr. Anderson wrote and directed.  The film is set in Japan in the near future, when fears of a dog flu virus lead to all dogs being outlawed and sent to “trash island.”  When a young boy, Atari, journeys to trash island to search for his dog, Spots, he befriends a pack of dogs that includes Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Boss (Bill Murray) King (Bob Balaban), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).  Together, they seek to reunite Spots and Atari, and also, along the way, they just might wind up defeating the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi and overturning the ban on man’s best friend.

There is a lot to love about Isle of Dogs, and I throughly enjoyed the experience of watching this beautifully-crafted fable-like story unfold.  The film is also, unfortunately, burdened by some issues of cultural appropriation and sensitivity which have weighed on me as I have considered the film after walking out of the theater.

Let’s start with what’s great.  Although many American audiences think of animation as being for kids only (and I was shocked that there were some families with very young kids who were in my screening — good lord, those kids/parents must have been horrified if they went in expecting a G-rated Disney-type story!!), Isle of Dogs is unabashedly aimed at adults.  I referred to the film, in the previous paragraph, as a “fable,” because, for me, the film had that feeling.  Even beyond the fact that most of the film’s characters are talking dogs, the film has an aspect of exaggeration that made it feel, to me, almost like a fairy tale.  And yet, beautifully combined with that structure to the story, was a film featuring many wonderfully nuanced and sophisticated characters and relationships.  Just as was the case in Fantastic Mr. Fox, here in Isle of Dogs the main focus of the story is on the journey of these characters.

Just like Mr. Anderson’s live-action work, Isle of Dogs is filled to overflowing with a wonderful array of characters, played by extremely talented comedic and dramatic actors.  Bryan Cranston is magnificent as Chief, an angry, loner “stray” dog who, over the course of the story, gradually learns to open himself up to friendship and companionship.  This is a fantastic dramatic performance, full stop.  Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and the Jeff Goldblum are each fantastic as the members of the pack who follow (and often bicker with) Chief.  They’re each so funny, and they each … [continued]

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What fun this has been, looking back at all of the amazing movies from 2014!  Click here for part one of my list of the Best Movies of 2014, numbers twenty through sixteen.  Click here for part two, numbers fifteen through eleven.  Click here for part three, numbers ten through six.

And now, at last, it’s time to draw this list to a close with my five favorite films of 2014.  Here we go:

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5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I dearly love every film in the Planet of the Apes series, even the terrible ones.  (Though the least said about Tim Burton’s disappointing entry, the better.)  But I was bowled over by the greatness of Dawn, the eighth Planet of the Apes film and the second in the rebooted prequel series.  What a rare thing it is to see a sequel with such ingenuity, such creativity, such narrative power.  Director Matt Reaves has come in and crafted an astounding piece of speculative fiction.  Ten years after the events of the last Apes film, a plague has wiped out most of humanity.  Caesar and his apes have crafted for themselves a utopian civilization, deep in the woods of San Francisco.  But when a small group of humans wanders into Caesar’s community, the struggling human community and the developing ape community find themselves on a collision course, and Caesar’s belief that the apes are naturally superior to the flawed humans leads him to the precipice of a disastrous misjudgment.  Yes, this is a film that features talking apes, but Dawn is a rich human drama with Shakespearean levels of emotional complexity and power.  When everything goes to hell in the third act, it is tragic.  Andy Serkis does some of the best work of his career as Caesar, bringing such pathos, such richness of feeling to this ape character.  The mad geniuses at Weta Workshop and all the countless visual effects artists and crafts-people who brought the visual effects of this world to life have outdone themselves, creating one of the most impressive visual effects achievements I have ever seen.  Those apes look so real it is staggering.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a spectacular achievement, and I can’t wait to see where this series goes from here.  (Click here for my original review.)

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4. Guardians of the Galaxy What was it I said back when writing about Captain America: The First Avenger about Marvel Studios making it look easy?  They took a comic book team fairly obscure even to comic book fans, one that has not been able to ever support its own comic book series for very … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ever since seeing The Royal Tenenbaums in theatres and being absolutely blown away, I’ve been a big fan of Wes Anderson.  Over the last few years, the filmmaker has been on a particularly special, can’t-do-any-wrong winning streak.  I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox was his strongest film since The Royal Tenenbaums (click here for my original review), then I fell just as deeply in love with Moonrise Kingdom (click here for my review), and now I’m here to tell you that his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is an equally magnificent concoction.

The film chronicles the bond that forms between Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes), the refined concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel — an expensive hotel high in the mountains of the fictional European nation of Zubrowka — and the young lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).  The young Zero idolizes Gustav, who takes the lobby boy under his wing.  Gustav is a master of his profession, with a sixth sense as to how to provide his customers with what they need before they even realize they need it.  He also has a habit of sleeping with the wealthy, elderly women who frequent the hotel.  When one of his paramours, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, under some impressive old-age make-up) dies, she leaves much of her estate to Gustav in her will (including, most notably, a beloved family heirloom, the painting called “Boy with Apple”).  This, of course, irritates her nasty children, who conspire to cause much trouble for the concierge.  

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a delightful romp, filled with a lot of humor and some terrific set-pieces.  The film is a historical drama and a murder mystery and a chase film and a prison break story and much more, all at once.  It’s also a surprisingly winsome, bittersweet piece of nostalgia for an idealized world that has passed.  The film is structured as a series of stories within stories, a structure than not only gives the film a bit of mind-bending fun but also emphasizes the nostalgic nature of the story being told.  We’re reminded repeatedly that the world of Gustav H. no longer exists, and that drapes the story in a layer of sadness, no matter how much fun we’re having as we watch his adventures.  I love the extra bit of emotional power that gives to the proceedings, and I was particularly taken by the specific note upon which Mr. Anderson chose to end the film.  It’s a surprisingly somber moment, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson has developed a very distinct visual style, and part of the secret of the success of his last several films in particular has been how well … [continued]

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First up, a big thank-you to everyone who has backed the kickstarter for the Jewish Comix Anthology!  This 250-page hardcover will feature the work of 47 Jewish artists, including Art Spiegelman, Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Joe Kubert… and me!  There’s only a week left to back the project, so please click here to get in on this!  There are some great backer rewards, including a just-added opportunity to own some original Motion Pictures cartoons by yours truly!  That’s right!  Would you like to own the original version of one of these three cartoons…?

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Click here to view the kickstarter and purchase those cartoons!  Thanks everyone!

OK, moving on… I have watched this trailer a LOT.  I have an excited feeling that this movie is going to take the world by storm.  (I hope so!!)

Oh man I can’t wait for this:

And this!  (It’s always apey-est just before the dawn…)

As if that Guardians of the Galaxy trailer I posted above wasn’t cool enough, they’ve also just released a new poster with a phenomenal tag-line.

Speaking of super-hero film news, Fox made some headlines recently with the announcement of the cast of their new Fantastic Four film.  I for one am crossing my fingers.  I have always loved the FF and nothing would make me happier than an amazing Fantastic Four movie.  But the casting seems to be rather off the mark.  I don’t mind Johnny Storm being black.  Michael B. Jordan is an awesome actor, I am happy he is in the movie.  And he seems like the only one of these four actors who feels like the right “fit” for his character — in this case the young, brash, fun-loving Johnny.  I am more worked up by skinny Jamie Bell being cast as Ben Grimm!!  And I like Miles Teller, he was phenomenal in The Spectacular Now (click here for my review), but he is WAY too young for Reed Richards.  In fact, ALL of these actors are too young, the FF should all be 30-somethings not 20-somethings.  I hope they have something good up their sleeves, but this casting doesn’t seem to indicate they plan on being too faithful to the comic book characters.  (At least, not the original FF.  Marvel comics’ “Ultimate” universe, created a decade-or-so ago, featured a teenaged FF.  But while there have been some great Ultimate universe stories, I was never that taken by that interpretation of the FF.)  And in a world where Marvel Studios exists, where they have been making amazing Marvel movies that are VERY faithful to the comics, I have little patience for another bad Fox-made FF movie.  Well, hope … [continued]

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Click here to read part one of my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2012, in which I listed numbers 15-11.  Now, onward!

10. Looper In this smart, original sci-fi flick written and directed by Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe.  Joe is a Looper, someone paid to kill guys the mob from thirty-years in the future send back in time to get whacked, long before the law might be looking for their bodies or any evidence of the crime.  One day, the guy sent back in time for Joe to kill turns out to be Joe himself, now played by Bruce Willis.  Old Joe gets away from Young Joe, and things spiral out of control from there.  Bruce Willis hasn’t been this much fun to watch in an action movie in years, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific as well.  I loved watching these two play off of one another.  Emily Blunt (making her second appearance on my Best of 2012 list, as she also starred in The Five-Year Engagement) and Paul Dano and Jeff Daniels are all fun in supporting roles.  This is a twisty sci-fi tale that is mind-bending without ever losing sight of the character drama at the heart of the story. (Click here for my original review.)

9. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Though not the masterpiece that the three original Lord of the Rings films were, this first of Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is still a ferociously entertaining fantasy adventure.  At nearly three hours in length, this film is stuffed to the gills with extraordinary sights and thrills, with characters and with circumstance.  Martin Freeman is wonderful as Bilbo Baggins (inheriting the role from Ian Holm who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who actually reprises his role as “Old Bilbo” in one of this film’s many prologues), a great every-man anchor to the story.  He’s great, and I also loved seeing lots more of Ian McKellan, who reprises his role as Gandalf and is magnificent as ever as the gruff, temperamental wizard.  The film is filled with many great new characters (all of the Dwarves) as well as the welcome return of many familiar faces from the original trilogy (Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman, and of course Andy Serkis as Gollum).  The “riddles in the dark” scene with Gollum alone makes this film worth seeing, but there are so many other wonderful moments, from the long opening scene in Bag End with all of the dwarves (highlighted by Richard Armitage as Thorin and the other Dwarves singing the somber “Misty Mountains” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Moonrise Kingdom

July 9th, 2012
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I know some people who don’t care for the peculiar stylization of Wes Anderson’s films, but I am an enormous fan of his work, and the arrival of a new Wes Anderson film is always a cause for excitement for me.  I particularly adored Mr. Anderson’s most recent film, Fantastic Mr. Fox (click here for my review).  I loved it almost as much as The Royal Tenenbaums, which still stands as my favorite Wes Anderson film, though Fantastic Mr. Fox is very, very close.  I was a little worried that, coming off of that great film, Moonrise Kingdom might be something of a let-down (in the way that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was somewhat disappointing to me after Tenenbaums, though I have subsequently come to really enjoy that film).  But such was not at all the case.  Moonrise Kingdom is magnificent.

The film tells the tender story of the young love that blooms between two twelve-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away from their respective homes together.  Sam is an orphan, who doesn’t seem to be loved by his new foster parents and who is ostracized in the Khaki Scout troop in which he finds himself a member.  Suzy’s parents are still alive, but distant from her, wrapped up in their own failing marriage.  Susy’s discovery that the mother is having an affair proves difficult for the young girl to make peace with.  So Sam and Suzy make plans to set off on an adventure together.

The two kids are both fantastic.  There are times when the performances of the young actors might feel a little stilted, but the two kids are both so genuine and honest that it’s hard to complain.  Sam and Suzy are very different from one another, but the connection that forms between them is a magical one, and young Mr. Gilman and Ms. Hayward bring their childhood romance to beautiful, heart-rending life.  The film wouldn’t work if these two weren’t believable, and let me say that the film works very well indeed.

The adults in their lives are just as wonderfully fascinating, if not more so!  Bruce Willis has been stuck in “Bruce Willis” mode for a while now, so I was shocked by how great he is as the sad, lonely police captain on the small New England island on which the story is set.  It’s a very tender, restrained performance, and it’s absolutely wonderful in every respect.  Equally great is Edward Norton as the earnest leader of Sam’s Khaki Scout troop.  Scout Master Ward is an adult, but he’s another great child-at-heart Wes Anderson creation, more at home in his life as a … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Rushmore (1998)

Although I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, somehow I had only seen Rushmore — the film that broke him through to a larger audience — one single time.  I saw it on VHS back in 1999 or 2000.  I didn’t know a thing about Wes Anderson at the time, I just knew it was a Bill Murray comedy that had been well-reviewed when it came out.  But since my idea of a great Bill Murray comedy was something like Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day, I was totally unprepared for Rushmore.  I didn’t like it at all.

Thinking back on it, I think the problem was that I was expecting a totally different kind of movie.  I didn’t know quite what to make of Mr. Anderson’s little film.  It was a much more somber, sad film than anything I would readily describe as a “comedy.”  I do remember laughing at a few points — particularly the mid-movie montage in which Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman’s characters try to destroy one another — but those moments were few and far between.  It also probably didn’t help that I was watching the movie on a tiny little TV screen, late at night when I was exhausted.

For years now I’ve been thinking that I really should go back and revisit Rushmore.  It’s GOT to be a better film than I remember it being, I thought!  After watching Wes Anderson’s first film, Bottle Rocket, last year (click here for my review), I was all set to re-watch Rushmore.  But somehow, months passed, and I never got to it.

But last month, finally, I did!

As I expected, I thought much, much more highly of Rushmore this time.  I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums is far and away Wes Anderson’s greatest film (though The Fantastic Mr Fox certainly would give it a run for its money — click here for my review of that film), but I quite enjoyed Rushmore, and I can see why it was such a critical darling upon its release in 1998.

Jason Schwartzman turns in a star-making performance as the Max Fischer — an overachiever who has founded countless school clubs and written and directed a series incredibly elaborate plays but who, nevertheless, is in danger of flunking out of Rushmore Academy.  Max strikes up a friendship with Herman Blume (Bill Murray) a rich local businessman who finds that he likes the eccentric Max far more than his own “popular” sons.  The two men are both lost and lonely, and they’re able to find deep common ground between them, despite their age difference.  That is, until they both fall in … [continued]

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The Top 10 Movies of 2009 — Part Two!

Yesterday I began my list of my Top 10 Movies of 2009!  Let’s continue, shall we?

5.  Inglourious Basterds — Quentin Tarantino demonstrates, once again, that no one can wring more nail-biting tension out of simple conversation than he can.  What I thought would be  a simple men-on-a-mission story wound up being a much more complex, intriguing tale.  Filled with astounding, unforgettable performances (Brad Pitt as the tough-talking Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurent as the fiercely intelligent Shosanna Dreyfus, and of course Christopher Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, one of the most unforgettable film villains of the past decade) and some great Tarantino touches (yep, that is a Samuel L. Jackson voice-over at one point), the film is ridiculously compelling.  And that ending.  Ho boy.  Read my full review here.

4.  District 9 — With a budget reportedly in the ballpark of 30 million dollars (which, if my information is correct, is about a third of what was spent on the Alec Baldwin/Meryl Streep comedy It’s Complicated), first-time director Neill Blomkamp fashioned one of the most gripping sci-fi tales I have ever seen.  The film is set in Johannesburg, almost thirty years after an enormous alien spacecraft appeared over the city.  The aliens, nicknamed “prawns,” have been settled in slum-like conditions in a refugee camp called District 9.  When the corporation MNU bows to public pressure to remove the aliens from the vicinity of Johannesburg, the hapless Wikus Van De Merwe (who participates in the forced evictions) finds his life turned upside-down.  As a sci-fi fan I am always looking for smart, original new works of sci-fi, and this film has both qualities in spades.  With jaw-dropping special effects (I am amazed at how well the alien “prawns” are brought to life), a career making performance by Sharlto Copley (who plays Wikus), some terrific action, and edge-of-your seat intensity from start to finish, District 9 is a magnificent and haunting creation.  Read my full review here.

3.  Fantastic Mr. Fox — A deliriously fantastic combination of Roald Dahl’s story (about a family of foxes menaced by three vicious farmers) and director Wes Anderson’s unique sensibilities, Fantastic Mr. Fox feels to me like the film Mr. Anderson has always wanted to make.  He has filled the movie with his specific style — detail-filled sets and precise, stage-like staging — and the foxes are a classic addition to Mr. Anderson’s repertoire of wonderfully idiosyncratic, somewhat disfunctional families.  The script is complex and sophisticated (with characters who all possess strengths as well as character flaws, and no easy answers to their dilemmas in sight), and the voice-actors (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Fantastic Mr. Fox

Having watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, the phenomenal new stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Darjeeling Limited), I am almost forced to reconsider all of his previous (also wonderful) films.

Mr. Anderson’s work has always been characterized by an extraordinarily stylized look to his sets and staging.  (The Royal Tenenbaums, my favorite of Mr. Anderson’s films, must be considered a triumph of art direction amongst its many other great qualities.)  Now it seems to me that Mr. Anderson has always been approaching his movies as if they were animated films: pouring never-ending attention into the creation of the artificial worlds that his characters inhabit.  (In animation, this is of course necessary: there are no “standing sets” to use – everything must be designed from the ground up.)

Or maybe I should put it this way: in stop-motion animation, Mr. Anderson has found a perfect stylistic vehicle for his particular idiosyncratic method of storytelling.

Adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox focuses on a family of foxes who enter into an escalating feud with three cruel farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean.  What is remarkable is that this animated fox family is just as fully-realized as any of the clans seen in Mr. Anderson’s previous films.  Each character is filled with flaws and with strengths.  Each feels, well, human!  George Clooney voices the title character, Mr.  Fox, who is inventive and fearless… but also dangerously reckless and oblivious to the walls he is inadvertently building up between him and his son.  Jason Schwartzman plays his son, Ash, a teenaged (in fox-years) boy who idolizes his father but, sensing that he is not going to get the approval he seeks, has withdrawn into teenaged “this is all stupid” rebellion (that includes the wearing of bizarre outfits).  Meryl Streep is the patient mother of the brood who deeply loves her husband yet must admit, in a powerful moment late in the film, that she never should have married him.

Does this sound like your every-day animated film so far?

It’s just amazing, really, how Mr. Anderson (working with co-writer Noah Baumbach, who wrote and directed the magnificent film The Squid and the Whale) has shaped Roald Dahl’s tale into a film whose character drama fits perfectly in with the rest of Anderson’s filmography.  But he has done so without losing the charm and heart of Mr. Dahl’s original tale – particularly when it comes to bringing to life the increasingly escalating lunacy (and violence) of Mr. Fox’s back-and-forth feud with the farmers.

I haven’t even mentioned the enormous ensemble that surrounds … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Bottle Rocket (1996)

September 16th, 2009
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I walked into Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums totally unprepared for the idiosyncratic work of genius I was about to see.  I had seen Rushmore on video a year or so earlier, but I’d gone in expecting a goofy Bill Murray comedy and so didn’t quite know what to make of the film I actually saw.  While Rushmore had gotten a lot of acclaim upon its release, the film didn’t exactly blow my skirt up (to borrow one of my favorite lines from True Lies).  But I’ll watch Gene Hackman in almost anything, and the rest of the ensemble cast of Tenenbaums looked intriguing, so I decided to check out the film when it came out in theatres.  I was absolutely blown away by what I saw: the film was emotional and very, very funny, but even more than that, every frame seemed to be absolutely unique, unlike any other film I’d ever seen before.  This was the work of an accomplished, singular filmmaker.

The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favorite film by Wes Anderson, but I’ve also quite enjoyed The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (a much-underrated film that I have really grown to like upon repeat viewings) and The Darjeeling Limited.  Despite my appreciation of those films, though, I had never sought out Mr. Anderson’s first film: Bottle Rocket.  There’s no particular reason for that — I wasn’t avoiding seeing it — it’s just a film that I never got around to watching.  But when the Criterion Collection (always known for their high-quality presentations of notable films) released Bottle Rocket on DVD last spring, I knew I had to take the plunge.

Bottle Rocket focuses primarily on the friendship between three young men: Anthony (Luke Wilson), Dignan (Owen Wilson), and Bob (Robert Musgrave).  The three guys — Dignan in particular — harbor aspirations of becoming master criminals.  When we meet them at the start of the film, though, they’re pretty hapless.

Bottle Rocket isn’t strong on plot, exactly.  That’s not to say that nothing happens in the film — quite a lot happens, actually.  But there isn’t really a strong dramatic through-line to the events — the movie feels more like a series of vignettes.  That hurts the pacing of the film somewhat, but adds to the naturalism of the story.  These three friends aren’t typical movie-heroes caught up in BIG DRAMATIC events.  They’re just sort-of hapless schmoes trying their best to figure out their own lives and find their way in the world.  And therein lies the movie’s charm.

The two Wilson brothers and Robert Musgrave all turn in strong performances — especially Owen Wilson, whose character of Dignan is a truly unique creation.  … [continued]