A Deeply Human and Lovely Supernatural Tale
Soon 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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A Brutal, Emotional Instant Classic of the Comic Book Genre
The 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.
Revered animation writer and director Hayao Miyazaki has built his illustrious and inspiring career around certain themes that he has returned to time and time again in his many decades of work. These include the spiritual realm, the sanctity of nature, and the wonder of flight. But perhaps his most defining theme, which pervades each of his works to some degree or another, is the crucial need for compassion toward one another. In Miyazaki’s films, it isn’t violence or deception or debate that changes the world and saves other people, it’s displays of compassion that come from pure love for other people.
No other film in Miyazaki’s canon of great animated features has this more prominently displayed in its story and themes than 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Based on a novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, but with many elements and themes largely changed for the film, Miyazaki’s fantasy romance is set in a fictional kingdom where modern technology and magic coexist alongside one another. It’s in this setting, where two kingdoms wage war against one another, that Sophie, a young hatter, meets the wizard Howl and is suddenly turned into an old woman due to a curse from a witch who is after Howl. In search of a way to break the curse, Sophie moves into Howl’s home (the titular moving castle) and changes the lives of the people around her as well as the war itself through her compassion.
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Director Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull is a masterwork of violence and its all-too human repercussions, as told through the real life story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta. Filtered through the acclaimed director’s Catholic background, Scorsese’s biopic may seem to be a common boxing film at first glance, but its true purpose is as a meditation on the destructive nature of anger and what it truly means to atone for one’s sins. It’s a film that is as beautiful in its cinematic explorations of its themes as it is repulsive in its stark depictions of one man’s rage-filled path of self-destruction.
That dichotomy is the key to its most powerful ruminations on atonement, as it holds nothing back in exploring the wages of sin and anger, as well as what it may truly take for some to change their deepest and darkest natures.
When we first meet boxer Jake La Motta (Robert DeNiro), it’s in the midst of a punishing and ugly bout that sees the boxer lose his first ever fight due to his opponent being saved by the bell. From the very first moments, it’s clear that Jake is a man consumed by anger, as shown by his unflinching willingness to take punch after punch directly to the face just to lay out his opponent with devastating haymakers. And the boxing ring itself as well as the crowd surrounding it are direct reflections of his rage, with the audience erupting into mayhem both during and after the fight. Onlookers attack one another, women are trampled in the chaos, and a riot threatens to engulf the ring itself. This is only the first example of how Scorsese’s boxing matches throughout Raging Bull will work as metaphors for LaMotta’s inner turmoil, and their examinations are crucial for understanding what is being said throughout the film
A Worthy Follow-Up to a Modern Action Classic
When 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.