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Kubo and the Two Strings

“If you must blink, do it now.” That’s the first line of “Kubo and the Two Strings, spoken over a dark screen, and it’s good advice, because what follows is a visual feast that you won’t want to take your eyes off for even a second. Director Travis Knight and the LAIKA animation team have seamlessly blended stop motion and digital animation to create a movie that doesn’t look like any other.

Young Kubo is a storyteller with the magical ability to make paper turn and fold itself into swirling origami images of the tales he’s telling.  It’s thrilling to watch, and the way he tells stories is not all that different from the way his story is told. I don’t think anything but Kubo’s origami is actually made out of paper, but there is, nonetheless, a tactile sense to the animation, that gives it both a sense of gravity and wonder.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Suicide Squad

“Suicide Squad,” is oozing with ambition yet fails to really land any of the things it’s trying to pull off.  But let’s give it points for trying. Really, it wants to do so many things, it’s kind of endearing to watch it fail. Writer/Director David Ayers wants to include each character’s origin story – and there are a lot of them – not at the beginning of the film, but embedded as we go along.  That’s a cool idea that doesn’t work, because it creates a whiplash-inducing pace to the movie.  He wants to tell a story that takes place in the space of a few hours all (more or less) in one place. Another cool idea (see “Die Hard,” or “The Raid: Redemption”) but again, major pacing issues. And he wants to help us see this motley crew of villains as heroes.  That’s probably the least ambitious, and the most successful.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Star Trek: Beyond

Justin Lin, who directed four of the seven “Fast and Furious” movies, is behind the latest “Star Trek” offering, and there are definitely times “Star Trek Beyond” feels like Fast and Furious in Space. The way Lin turned those basically empty action movies into stories about a makeshift family vastly improved them.  He brings that same intent to “Star Trek,” and it’s pleasing a lot of Trekkies, who care more about the crew than they do about the plot.  The last installment, “Into Darkness,” was blasted for being Star Trek karaoke — the actors were wearing the uniforms of Kirk and Spock, but the heart and soul was strangely missing.  Those fans should feel listened to. There’s plenty of banter and character moments, and that old hokey feeling is back again.

In “Star Trek Beyond,” it’s the close bonds formed from sailing through the vast reaches of space for years on end that motivate the characters. When the film begins – more than halfway through the original five year mission – Kirk is thinking about giving up his captain’s chair for one attached to the ground, but he can’t bring himself to tell his bestie Spock – who is also, privately thinking about leaving Star Fleet.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Great Movies Roundtable: Blade Runner

#97 on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list is “Blade Runner.”

WK: “Blade Runner” had a famously troubled production.  Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott wouldn’t talk to each other for decades after the production; Scott fought with his crew in a childish war waged on T-shirts, and the studio forced Ford to add a cheesy voiceover track and Scott to edit the film down to an almost incomprehensible theatrical release.  So it’s not surprising it wasn’t greeted with joy by critics when it was released; what originally hit the screen was a garbled mess.  And since then, no fewer than seven different cuts have been released, so it can be confusing to figure out exactly which “Blade Runner” we’re talking about.   In my mind, the Final Cut, released in 2007, the only version over which Scott had complete control, is the definitive version, and the one we’ll be talking about.

CRH: I personally think Blade Runner is a masterpiece of science fiction. It’s dark and stirring to the eyes and imagination. I remember buying a copy of the nineties Director’s Cut at a Ross. I was spared ever watching the version with the crappy voice over. After the first viewing I really didn’t know what to think but it’s drawn me in again and again. It opens up with the gas flares burning in the dreary near future. We are treated to a neo scifi noir. The film’s theme primarily regards what it means to be human.

Is this a great movie?  

WK: Absolutely. Ridley Scott made “Alien” in 1979, and “Blade Runner” in 1982. Both movies were made during the sci fi craze that “Star Wars” ignited, when just about anything taking place in the future and/or in space could get bankrolled (and a lot of really terrible movies did.)  But it’s hard to overestimate the ways that Scott’s film changed the sci fi genre. Most directors tried to copycat the swashbuckling fantasy of “Star Wars,” thinking that’s what made it a success, and failed, because it wasn’t; the swashbuckling fantasy elements of “Star Wars” are the borrowed parts — what set it apart was that the Star Wars universe felt lived in; it felt real, because things were junky and cheap and broken. Just about every notable sci fi flick before “Star Wars” looks either immaculately clean (like “2001: A Space Odyssey”) or cheesy and plastic (like “Planet of the Apes.”)

Scott seems to be the only director who recognized what really made “Star Wars” stand out, and lifted it for two films that are very different from George Lucas’ space opera.  “Alien” is space horror, and “Blade Runner” is robot noir.  Both are set in a future considerably grimmer than “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away,” and both are masterpieces that changed forever what we expect a sci fi flick to look like, and to do.  It’s a shame only one of them is on AFI’s list.

CRH: I agree with you that it is a great movie for its sci-fi elements. It takes and runs with the idea of a rundown lived in future. I think that is what has contributed to its sheer influence on storytellers to this day. The doomed lived in future is a remarkably appealing canvas to set a story. I think the best part of the story is the ending where Roy Batty played with impish intensity basically spends the whole movie murdering his way trying to find more life but ultimately dies as a man. Relating his fears to his attempted murderer. The end of the film is really quite an achievement.

This is film is slow.  Is it too slow?  

WK: I think if you know what you’re getting into going in, it isn’t.  “Blade Runner” is one of my favorite movies to just soak in, on the biggest screen, in the darkest room possible. It is completley transporting in a way few sci-fi films are.  And my gosh, the cinematography.  So many beautiful, beautiful shots.  Watching it again, I just wanted to pause and stare at the screen about every ten seconds.

CRH: I have no problem with slow movies as long as the pace is deliberate and well-crafted. Lawrence of Arabia is a great movie that honestly could be about an hour shorter. But the extra length and time give us shots and character development. Blade Runner is no different. The movie spends a lot of time just showing future Los Angeles in insane detail. The shots are amazing. Rhe cinematography work just makes the movie!

What are your favorite scenes?

WK: It’s hard to pick a favorite scene; what I love most about this film is the mise-en-scene, which is present everywhere.  I love the interview at the beginning, because it so perfectly sets the tone.  I love Zhora’s slow motion death scene. I love just about every J.F. Sebastian scene.  And of course – “tears in the rain.”

CRH: Loved both of those scenes. both are integral to the theme of the movie. Zora is mercilessly gunned down, and batty becomes a man in his death. But I really loved the scene of Roy challenging and killing his creator Tyrell. It’s Shakespeare and I love the shot of Roy in the elevator riding down after the murder his look of bewilderment is fantastic.

What works/What doesn’t work? 

WK: I have very few complaints or issues with this movie – I think it’s a masterpiece.  One complaint I have is with Ford’s performance, especially towards the end.  The entire final action sequence, he looks like Han Solo fresh out of the carbon freezer.  I understand he’s outmatched, but a little more modulation in the performance would have been preferable.

Also, I don’t like the sex scene. I don’t like rough sex scenes in general. I think they give way too many young men permission to push women around, and not take “no” for an answer.

 CRH: The story and the neo noir and science fiction is great. I agree that the rough sex scene is baffling at best and awful at worst. I always believed that movies are a piece of art. Blade Runner is kind of the archetypical arthouse film. Though I believe it has actually has wider appeal than most of those films primarily due to its science fiction and neo-noir.

Buying or Selling?  

Hmm… much as I love this movie, I don’t really see it moving up the list in future versions.  Its troubled production history coupled with the multiple versions, plus its slow pace and more or less niche audience means that “Blade Runner” isn’t going to be accessible to a lot of people.  It’s been considered a cult classic for years; its presence on this list means it doesn’t really qualify as “cult” anymore, but I think it’ll hang around the bottom for the foreseeable future.

CRH: I  think it will endure. Cult films tend to Prevail in the long run. If anything the film will Prevail due to its prophetic element.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, Lists, The Classic Movie Series.

Room

Director Lenny Abramson threads a particularly fine needle with “Room.”  He takes what could be a particularly dark and brutal story — this is a movie about a woman who is kidnapped and held in a modified garden shed for 7 years, and then, once she escapes, descends into depression and attempts suicide — and directs it in a way that emphasizes wonder, exploration, and joy to the point that it verges on being cloying and sentimental.  I can think of a few other movies that tried to marry dark-as-night subject matter with toothpaste sunshiny tone (“The Lovely Bones,” which has similar subject matter, and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which was about 9/11) and both failed, hard.  So it’s almost a miracle that “Room” succeeds, and even more, that it manages to be one of the best films of the year.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Anomalisa

I get excited when I see Charlie Kaufman’s name attached to a film.  Partly because it doesn’t happen that often (his last was “Synecdoche, New York” in 2008) but mostly because he is an unique and distinct writer, who also might be completely nuts.  His movies take me places no other movie goes (for instance, literally into John Malkovich’s head) and I always enjoy the ride.

So I buckled myself in for “Anomalisa,” and was a little surprised by what a gentle Sunday drive it was. This is by far the most subtle and restrained of Kaufman’s films.  There are a number of unusual elements at play here (it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Kaufman decided to use stop motion puppets) but the overall effect is surprisingly banal: this is, for the most part, a movie about normal people doing things normal people do (as long as you consider adultery and one night stands something normal people do.)

And it’s really, really good at being normal.  “Anomalisa” is very well-observed, and Kaufman clearly has a talent for the tiny absurdities of life, especially life on the road.  I was on the road, staying in a hotel, attending a conference, when I first saw this movie, and the first half hour was magical in the way it captured all the little moments that drive introverts like me crazy: the bellboy who insists on talking to you in the elevator. The taxi driver who really wants you to see the local sights. The front desk that tells you way more than you need to know.  All these people trying to be friendly, just making it worse. (I love people, I just don’t want to talk to them 24/7.)

Except not everything is quite normal, and maybe Stone has problems beyond being an introvert like me.  There are only three voices in “Anomalisa.”  The main character, whose name is Michael Stone, is voiced by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lisa, the woman he meets while traveling to a customer service convention. Tom Noonan provides all the other voices, of which there are many, both male and female.  This is the main premise of “Anomalisa.”  Everyone sounds (and seems) exactly the same to Stone, and the world is a lonely and terribly boring place.  Until he meets Lisa.

When I first watched this, I thought it was a terribly shallow and cynical metaphor for love and relationships: everyone’s the same, then one person is magically different, but even that fades over time. But then I read a little bit about the movie, and discovered that this is actually a real psychological condition: some people really do believe that everyone else is the world is really just one other person dressed up in different disguises.  It’s called the Fregoli delusion… and the name of the hotel where Stone meets Lisa is the Fregoli.  There’s something more afoot here than I realized.

And so I watched it a second time, and looked for clues as to what Kaufman’s really up to.  And now I think that “Anomalisa” is about love and relationships in the same way that “Starship Troopers” is about war. It’s a subtle satire, one that adopts popular attitudes about its subject in order to show just how delusional and destructive they are.  Kaufman isn’t saying that love is like the Fregoli delusion; he’s saying that if we fall for the idea, so ubiquitous in romantic movies and literature and music, that love is like the Fregoli delusion — if we believe that all the world is dull until ONE person is suddenly different, captivating, and perfect — we are going to end up lonely, bored and depressed.

 

 

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Wolfpack

Documentarian Crystal Moselle almost literally stumbled upon the subject of her documentary “The Wolfpack.”  According to interviews, she saw a group of oddly dressed teenagers chasing each other in and out of the foot traffic of Manhattan, and ran after them to find out who they were and what they were up to.  Their answer resulted in one of the most intriguing and astonishing documentaries I have ever seen.

Moselle intentionally makes it difficult for us to tell the brothers apart; there are six of them, they all have long hair down to their waist and Sanskrit names (Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krsna and Jagadisa.) We relate to them as a pack, and they seem perfectly comfortable speaking for each other. That makes sense, because they have never known anyone else; their father only lets them leave the tiny apartment a couple of times a year, and even then, they’re not allowed to talk to anyone.

Given that setup, their lives don’t seem as miserable as you might expect. They are bright and creative and articulate, and they spend most of their time re-creating the movies that they love. (It’s a strange incongruence that he shields them from other people, and yet feeds them uber-violent movies like Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight. The result is that they probably think the world is worse than it actually is; maybe that was the point.)  They have a real talent for making just about anything, out of cereal boxes and yoga mats, and it’s really fun to watch these re-creations.  One one level, this is a film about the joy of filmmaking, and the ways that movies can be a welcome release from the mundane circumstances of our everyday lives. That’s true for all of us, I think.

There are no outside voices in “The Wolfpack.”  The entire documentary is made up of Moselle’s interviews of the boys (and their parents — the ever-present father finally becomes actually present late in the film,) interlaced with their own home video footage, of their movies as well as your typical holiday videos and some surprisingly intimate family moments.  We never hear from an outside expert on child development, or even a neighbor.  Those kinds of things might have made this a more well-rounded film, but I didn’t miss them.  What we have is an affectionate, intimate, and very unique portrait of a family.

Moselle met the boys after they had pushed against their father’s rules and control, and found, to their surprise, very little resistance. But she is able to structure the documentary so that it feels like we are experiencing their coming of age as it happens; we see them looking nervously over their shoulders at the beginning, we witness awkward forays into the outside world (they seem surprised that everyone on Coney Island doesn’t dress and talk like the Reservoir Dogs cast) and, towards the end, the ways they are able to strike out on their own without burning bridges with their family, even their father.  There are moments where “The Wolf Pack” transcends its particular and peculiar circumstances and becomes something more universal: a movie about teenage sons and the ways they seek to define themselves in relationship to their father, whose presence looms large over everything they know about masculinity and authority. They see all the ways they are different from him, but we can’t help but see all the ways they are just alike.

 

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Free State of Jones

If you go see “Free State of Jones,” go ahead and take your time getting popcorn and soda pop.  If you miss the first half of the movie, you’re not really missing much. It’s a pretty standard re-telling of the Robin Hood myth, set in Mississippi at the tail end of the Civil War.  The beats were so predictable, it proceeded so methodically, that my eyelids grew heavy.

Matthew McConnaughey plays a confederate medic who deserts the army when his young cousin is shot and killed. He decides to take his cousin’s body home for a proper burial, but once he’s there, he sees confederate agents pillaging the home of the people he knows, taking nearly everything from them to feed and clothe the soldiers. McConnaughey is led by a slave into the swamp, where a small band of runaway slaves are hiding.  Of course, he decides to lead them into a full-fledged rebellion, though he doesn’t have the first clue what it’s like to be a runaway slave. He gathers other white deserters to him, and they rescue wagon loads of food and supplies being taken by the confederates and returns it to the people it belongs to.

“Free State of Jones” isn’t very interested in the ways the white former confederate soldiers and the runaway slaves relate to each other, and that’s a shame.  McConaughey makes a few vague statements like “men are men, regardless of the color of their skin” but the movie really wants us to believe that the real bad guys were the rich white slave owners, and the poor whites were just as exploited as their African counterparts.  That’s a pretty heavy gloss on history, and I’m not buying it.

Robin Hood myths almost always end with Richard the Lion-hearted returning, making Robin a knight, and throwing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the clinker.  This is where “Free State of Jones” departs from the pattern, and actually becomes a much more interesting movie.  In the third act, the war ends, but instead of things getting better, everything gets worse. Slave owners, and their sons, return, and they’re definitely not Lion-hearted. They do everything they can to return things back to the way they were before the war. There are “apprentice laws” which return people to slavery, the elections are rigged, and the KKK is on the rise, even as Union forces are withdrawing. It’s bleak, but it’s a chapter of history I don’t think I’ve ever seen on the big screen.  And while the film’s attempt to tap into the current rich/poor gap feels tired and contrived, this part feels relevant, as it explores the ways that racism, and de facto slavery, continued even after the war was won.  The last third of this movie is really worth seeing; it’s just too bad you have to sit through the first two thirds to get to it.  Maybe you can take a nap.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Finding Dory

By Courtland Hopkins

Finally! The long -awaited sequel to the classic 2003’s “Finding Nemo” has arrived in theaters. The story is one of my favorites and was excited and a smidge nervous to watch this latest entry into the Pixar canon. Pixar has had some great sequels (The Toy Story series) and some bad ones (Cars 2) so I was a little worried. But this movie sets its own story with a good premise: where did Dory come from? Sure, her memory lapse made for some good laughs in the original. But I think it was a good move to feature our beloved Dory searching for her roots and origins. I think the movie works. And spoiler alert: it has a happy ending which is wonderful.

The original “Finding Nemo” is poignant, dramatic, and a great story. It is perhaps the example of how to make a great movie. The new movie maintains that level of quality, The CGI looks incredible bringing the under ocean world to life. The characters are lovingly created and voiced by the original players (With the exception of Nemo.) The story explains how our beloved Dory ended up encountering Marlin in the first movie.  It weaves in the old and the new and makes this vast world they created appealing and engrossing to the audience. Dory’s relationship with the introverted Octopus Hank voiced by Ed O’Neil is a highlight. The characters go on a journey. It’s a fantastic odyssey.

It’s summertime, and it is nice to take some refuge from the heat inside the nice A/C darkness of the movie theater. I think “Finding Dory” is a fun summer treat. When I was in the theater I saw a little girl with her “Finding Nemo” toys with her. I think the summer movie theater is where we as movie watchers get to enjoy the phenomena of the happy ending. “Finding Dory” has a happy ending and that is why I recommend it. You leave the theater feeling very good but you also feel that the journey was a worthy use of your time. The best recommendation for a sequel is for me the reviewer to say I’m glad they made it. And I am. See it.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins.

Risen

Why is it that most movies about Jesus are either terribly sacrilegious or terribly corny?  My best guess is the people make the first type have mixed up shock value with artistic value, and the people making the second have never even heard of artistic value.  “Risen,” directed by Kevin Reynolds, is a refreshing change – it’s an artistically sound movie that doesn’t back away from its straightforward Gospel message.

It helps that Reynolds comes at the material (if the title didn’t clue you in, this is a movie about the resurrection of Jesus) from a unique angle. “Risen” stars Joseph Fiennes as a Roman soldier named Clavius who is ordered by Pontius Pilate to find the body of a troublesome Jewish rebel named Yeshua after the chief priests reports it stolen by his disciples. The first half of the film unfolds very much like a first century police procedural.  Clavius interviews the usual suspects, follows up the leads, and isn’t satisfied by the official explanation, which leaves too many loose ends.  As a procedural, it’s well-paced and engaging, populated with people (except for a goofy Bartholomew, who looks more like a deadhead than a disciple) who could believably populate 1st century Israel. I also really appreciated that Yeshua was played by Maori actor Cliff Curtis; it’s nice to see a brown-skinned Jesus.

The second half — after Clavius sees Yeshua and joins his disciples on their journey to Galilee to reunite with their master — is spottier. Having solved the central mystery, the film wants to delve into the deeper mystery — what does it mean that Jesus rose from the dead? What are the implications? And while these questions are certainly more important, they’re just not as dramatic, and as such don’t translate as well to the movie screen. There are some nice things about the second half; Clavius’ struggle to believe and understand what he has seen is handled well by Joseph Fiennes. It’s not overly romanticized or simplified. And I love that the disciples seem nearly as confused and mystified as Clavius; the film makes it clear that following Jesus and having all the answers about Yeshua are two very different things; it’s nice to see that kind of uncertainty in a movie that’s clearly trying to convert its viewers.  But Reynolds seems to struggle to know how to direct more than two or three actors onscreen at once; the disciples are repeatedly acting like a pack of over excited dogs.

I realize that I am the ideal audience for this kind of movie – I already know the story, and it’s close to my heart, so I really just want to see a version of it that doesn’t mess it up too much. That doesn’t seem like that much to ask, and yet “Risen” is the first movie directly about Jesus I’ve really enjoyed. I’d love to see more movies like “Risen,” and definitely fewer like “God’s Not Dead.” There are so many great stories about saints and sinners in church history, almost entirely untapped by filmmakers and dramatists. Maybe Kevin Reynolds is the right person to bring them to the big screen.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.