“Your Name” Review

A Deeply Human and Lovely Supernatural Tale

your-name-animeSoon after its 2016 release in Japan, writer and director Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name became the highest-grossing anime film ever released worldwide, making waves in both Japan and countries around the globe. With a simple-seeming story of a teenage boy and girl who swap bodies, the idea of Your Name seems like a been-there-done-that movie, but through gorgeous animation, some unexpected twists on the central concept, and two wonderful central characters, Your Name is among some of the best animated films released in the last several years. It’s a rousing, earnest, lovely success on every front.

Your Name is focused on two characters, Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), a high school girl who lives in the rural and quiet mountain town of Itomori, and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a high school boy in Tokyo. These two suddenly begin to swap bodies at random, waking up in each other’s forms at the start of various mornings and left to figure out their new surroundings and relationships without ruining each other’s lives. Their time spent in vastly different day-to-day lives begins to expand their worldview and opinions of one another, leading to burgeoning feelings and a very unexpected chance at falling in love.

It’s best to go into Your Name knowing as little of the plot as possible, as Shinkai has purposefully made his film into a mini-mystery that creates joy through its many gradual reveals. It’s evident from the start that there are many things to be learned throughout the course of Your Name, as the film quickly hits the viewer with a multitude of concepts and hints that won’t be revealed until later. Thankfully, there’s a deft hand behind them all, which turns what could be infuriating questions into exciting seeds that will eventually blossom for satisfying reveals.

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“Logan” Review

A Brutal, Emotional Instant Classic of the Comic Book Genre

logan-movie-poster-sunsetThe X-Men films have received a mixed reputation in recent years due to their frequent inability to be stable in their quality and a general sense that the franchise is always playing catch-up with other studios and their superhero film output. Through it all, actor Hugh Jackman has remained one of the bright spots as the ferocious and charismatic Wolverine, whose own films include one strong entry into the franchise (The Wolverine) and one of the all-time worst comic book movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). So suffice it to say that even given the carefully crafted approach that Jackman and director/co-writer James Mangold showed in their efforts to make Jackman’s final film as Wolverine, Logan, it’s stunning how good their film actually is.

Logan is not just good for an X-Men movie. It’s not just good for a comic book movie. Logan is an absolutely stellar film that proves powerful themes, fantastic acting, and the commitment to telling the best story possible are more important than any sort of cinematic universe creation.

With a setting in the distant future in which the X-Men are no more, it’s clear from the outset that Mangold and Jackman aren’t interested in preserving any sort of franchise continuity. Rather, they’re more than happy to burn it all down and leave 20th Century Fox to rebuild from the ashes if it means telling the best story possible. With the idea that mutants are almost extinct and that a vague but terrible future is in store for the many characters currently being touted by the rest of the franchise’s ongoing team films, it seems as though every X-Men film from here on out will be saddled with living up to Logan‘s inevitable dystopia and the film’s likely-impossible-to-reach high bar.

But with the supremely tepid X-Men: Apocalypse being the last entry into the main franchise continuity, it’s more than okay to break this series to give life to something this special.

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“John Wick Chapter 2” Review

A Worthy Follow-Up to a Modern Action Classic

john-wick-2-posterWhen the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick hit theaters in 2014, audiences and critics alike were blown away by the stellar craft behind this small yet explosive action film. With the first John Wick quickly gaining status as a modern action masterpiece, writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have a great deal of hype to live up to in John Wick: Chapter 2.

With a bigger budget, wilder action set pieces, and a deep dive into the weird and wild world hinted at in the first film, Kolstad, Stahelski, and Reeves have crafted a strong, exciting second installment in this sudden franchise, even if their massive action film can’t quite capture the magic of experiencing John Wick for the first time.

Picking up only a few days after the end of the original film, John Wick: Chapter 2 quickly sets out to tie up several loose ends of the first installment before rocketing off on a new mission of mayhem and destruction for its deadly ex-hitman. But with John’s main motivation for revenge that so expertly propelled the first film now ended, Chapter 2 has to work hard at creating a reason for its hero to get back into action once again. This time, it’s a powerful crime lord played by Riccardo Scamarcio who comes back into John’s life to force him into one more job. Surprise, surprise, things quickly get complicated and John finds himself targeted by all manner of goons and deadly hitmen. But it’s those complications that somewhat bog down the narrative, with several twists and turns needed to get the central character fully invested in a new mission. When combined with the world building at hand, Chapter 2 is hit with a few unfortunate moments of slowdown that the first film’s lean and aggressive storytelling never encountered.

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The Lego Batman Movie Review

A Silly, Fresh Take on The Dark Knight

lego-batman-movie-posterBatman films, and the character of Batman himself, are often a reflection of their times. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy questioned government power and vigilantism in the aftermath of terrorism and war. Tim Burton’s Batman was the first step in a darker and grimmer reimagining of superheroes. Now, The Lego Batman Movie arrives with a fresh, hyperactive, unabashedly funny take on The Caped Crusader that works as a treatise against the ever-darkening interpretations of the hero and the consistently self-important franchisement of superheroes on film as a whole.

It’s a breath of fresh air in comparison to so many previous live action Batman movies, even if it’s sense of comedy and wonder can’t quite match up to its Lego predecessor.

Serving as both a follow-up to 2014’s The Lego Movie and a new spin on a character that has been given countless incarnations on both film and television, The Lego Batman Movie manages to be both a loving revitalization of Batman on film as well as a good natured skewering of the character and his many iconic elements. With so many jokes that it is literally impossible to catch every single one on the first viewing and enough Easter eggs to make the most diehard Batman fan swoon from fan service, The Lego Batman Movie is positively manic with the amount of material stuffed into its 1 hour 40 minute runtime. It’s surely enough material to warrant multiples watches, even if the sheer amount of material unfolding on screen at any given moment may make it hard to focus when it’s truly needed.

Most importantly, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t afraid to do what nearly every live action incarnation of The Dark Knight has not done – have as much fun with the character as possible. With the willingness to include nearly every element of the character that has caused fans across the decades to love him – including a massive stable of villains, numerous supporting characters, a lengthy history that ranges from the deadly serious to the extremely campy, and wild action scenes that aren’t afraid to be big and colorful – The Lego Batman Movie feels more true to the character than most of his other interpretations, even when it frequently makes The Caped Crusader into the butt of the joke. It can do so as easily as it does because it’s clear that the team behind the film has a massive love for him and his humongous history in comics and film.

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“Justice League Dark” Review

DC Comics’ Vibrant Supernatural World Comes to Life

justice-league-dark-animated-posterThe supernatural side of DC Comics is ripe with vibrant characters, iconic stories, and exciting ideas that have largely been ignored by the brand’s live action film adaptations and much of its animated films and series until now. In Justice League Dark, the DC Animated Movie Universe dives headlong into the supernatural realm, bringing many of its greatest characters to life in a film whose strengths are the direct result of how fantastic those characters are in their pure, unadulterated forms. While the storytelling may leave something to be desired, the thrill of experiencing these iconic characters should entice both longtime comic fans and uninitiated viewers alike.

Justice League Dark, the latest in DC’s ever-growing line of interconnected home video animated films, sees a mystical threat in the DC Universe cause a group of its most powerful supernatural heroes to band together. As the group assembles, including Batman, John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, and Etrigan the Demon, they investigate an escalating series of supernatural occurrences that only they are equipped to stop. In the process of unpacking the mystery at hand, they grow closer to one another.

As the third R rated animated DC Comics film since 2014’s Assault on Arkham and 2016’s The Killing Joke, it’s clear that the creators behind Justice League Dark wanted their first big foray into the supernatural side of DC to make a mark. However, it’s not entirely clear why this had to be rated R. Aside from some extra blood, a little cursing, and a monster that is literally made out of poop, it doesn’t seem all that necessary. It’s not like the darker, edgier ideas of the story wouldn’t have worked with a PG-13 rating. In fact, it almost feels arbitrary, like the rating would gain some extra attention for the film. And those R rating-causing moments are rather forgettable, especially when the action itself doesn’t feel all that different from your standard PG or PG-13 rated animated film. You won’t be left shocked by the supposedly “mature” storytelling decisions of Justice League Dark, mostly just left wondering the reasons behind the choice.

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“La La Land” Review

Old School Charm for the Modern Era

la-la-land-movieMuch has been made of the ambition and excitement surrounding director/writer Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an unabashed musical done in the style of classic Hollywood entries into the genre. From the film industry buffs who adore its old school charms to the less-than-enthusiastic audiences who have already become worn out by the constant praise and awards being heaped upon the film, it seems like everyone has extreme reactions to Chazelle’s film. And with the film making waves by being tied for the record number of Academy Award nominations with a total of 14, it’s difficult to not hold the highly lauded movie musical up to a massive amount of scrutiny.

But what Chazelle, director behind 2014’s stellar Whiplash, is seeking to do with La La Land is to create a movie-going experience that captures the magic of old Hollywood filmmaking while also paying tribute to its many irreplaceable films. In doing so, Chazelle has made a movie that must be compared to many towering giants of film history while also introducing the idea of a musical to audiences who may not be all that familiar with the genre.

It’s a tough spot to be in, but Chazelle and his fantastic lead actors pull it off with ample grace and wit. Though there may be some rough spots in the process and La La Land is far from groundbreaking, this modern musical has grace, energy, and wit to spare, which more than make up for its few shortcomings.

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“Arrival” Review

Stunning, Timely Sci-Fi

arrival-2016-movieThe greatest science fiction films use the genre’s trappings to say something crucial about the human condition, with even some of the most explosion-filled entries into the genre having layered and meaningful metaphors deepening the silly spectacle on screen. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival takes one of the most tried and true sci-fi scenarios, first contact with an alien race, and turns it into an intimate affair that strikes a deft balance between the scientific and the emotional.

With an intimate focus on its limited cast of characters off-setting the massive stakes of the story, Arrival is a film that engages the brain and creates layers of emotional investment without sacrificing either aspect. In return, Villeneuve’s film becomes a highly rewarding experience that feels universal yet extremely timely in what it has to say concerning the value of communication, connection, and acceptance.

Those ideas play out when aliens arrive on Earth for the first time, sending governments worldwide into a confused frenzy. In the midst of that chaos, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is contacted by the U.S. Government to attempt communication with the mysterious aliens who have landed in Montana – just one of 12 space crafts that have landed around the world. As she attempts to decipher and understand the language of the aliens, Banks must also confront her grief surrounding a personal loss and the perils of misunderstandings that come from cross-cultural communication.

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“Fences” Review

Fantastic Performances Elevate a Faithful Adaptation

fences-2016-moviePlaywright August Wilson won great acclaim and numerous awards for his layered depictions of African-Americans through his many works, one of the most famous being the 1983 play Fences. Now, Denzel Washington has brought the play to life as a film as both its director and star. But Fences’ hyper-faithful recreation makes it into both a powerful display of Wilson’s creation and a sometimes frustrating example of the clash between the styles of play and film.

Set in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, Fences tells the story of husband and wife Troy (Denzel Washington) and Rose Maxson (Viola Davis), who are dealing with the changing world around them and their tumultuous past. As Troy and Rose spend time talking with their son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and other family members week after week, we begin to learn more and more about their past, as well as Troy’s numerous shortcomings. But a revelation concerning Troy threatens to tear their family apart and forever alter what small amount of happiness they have carved out in a cold and harsh world.

In every essence, Fences feels like a play. It’s not surprising, given that August Wilson himself adapted his play for the screen before his death in 2005. From dialogue to structure to character, Fences is a very faithful adaptation of the play and both Washington and Davis, who have played these characters countless times since starring in the 2010 Broadway revival, are clearly at home within the interior lives of their characters. Those who loved the play or who are interested in seeing what this seminal story is all about will find plenty to love in Washington’s film adaptation.

However, those unaccustomed to the storytelling style and character work often found within plays may find Fences to feel strange when reproduced in cinematic language. Whether you are keenly aware of the difference between film and play or not, it’s clear that Fences is operating in a far different manner than the typical movie.

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“Jackie” Review

Portman Shines in an Unconventional Biopic

jackie-movie-2016The biopic has been done an umpteen number of times in film, with most following a very similar formula. Life of a famous person is traced since childhood, with defining early moments, heartbreaking tragedies, the creation of defining works, and the rise and fall of various romances all plotted along the way. Throw in some montages and maybe some nifty closing text that wraps up the story, and you’ve basically got every good and bad biographical film.

Director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie most certainly eschews the formula, with the Natalie Portman-starring vehicle tracing a few short weeks in the life of Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Told in a labyrinthine manner and focused on permeating the psyche of its lead character instead of tracing her life’s major events, Jackie most certainly cannot be called a typical biopic. That distinction makes the film unique in the sea of biographical films, but it also frustrates as often as it illuminates.

Above all, Jackie is an acting showcase for Portman, whose portrayal of the world famous First Lady is quite literally at the center of the film. No, seriously, the vast majority of the shots in Jackie situate Portman at the center of the frame and having the film pivot on her as she makes her way through the aftermath of tragedy. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine’s camerawork is almost claustrophobic, with countless shots pressing into Portman’s visage or gracefully following her closely through the halls of The White House or her estate as she attempts to process the trauma she has just endured. It’s a bold choice and one that often dismisses the events happening around Jackie in favor of dissecting her behaviors, choices, and struggles.

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“Manchester by the Sea” Review

A Quiet, Human Meditation on Grief

manchester-by-sea-movie-posterDepression and grief have been the fuel for countless awards season films and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the latest to tackle the topics with an appropriate amount of pathos and empathy toward its characters. However, what differentiates Manchester by the Sea from many others is the subdued, far from flashy nature in which it tells its story, which combines with numerous powerful performances for a quietly moving, humanistic meditation on its themes.

Like the effects of grief, Lonergan tells his story through a filter that feels quieted and crushed by the depression gripping its characters. In doing so, Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally honest and human look at how death and loss impact each person differently and whether moving on from tragedy is truly possible for everyone. In the hands of different filmmakers and actors, Manchester could have easily been a melodramatic roller coaster that insisted on the importance of its acting choices and hammered its viewers with non-stop emotional highs and lows.

Instead, this examination of a man, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), who has been living with a past tragedy and must now take care of his nephew in the wake of his brother’s sudden death, works to subtly and earnestly gain emotional investment from its viewers.

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