Monthly Archives: August 2017

Fantastic Mr. Fox Review

It takes a special kind of director to get a very unconventional film with a lot of creative ideas and an original approach or style produced and distributed by Hollywood.  Fortunately, Wes Anderson has somehow – and don’t ask me how – found a way to get his bizarre art projects out there time and time again, but Hollywood still has its concerns about how audiences may be alienated by an Anderson-level of creativity.  I shared the same concerns when I put this movie up on the big screen in my family’s house and let whoever wanted to see it join me.  It was hard for me to tell how they would react – and even how I would react – since the combination of elements this film has is so bizarre.

The first thing to note is that this is, in the end, and animated children’s film, and the movie’s trailers delight in reminding the viewer of that.  Many of the jokes have the feeling of those in kids’ films, as do the messages about family and accepting one’s own differences and the collective coming together to save their way of life and such.  The film uses famous pop music, like most kids’ movies, but this one features “Heroes & Villains.”  The film has a cast of celebrities, like most kids’ movies, but this features  Meryl Streep, George Clooney, and Michael Gambon.  Oddly, the actors’ talents are almost wasted on a film with such dry performances – the tone of most of the humor is sort of awkwardly colorless (not in a bad way) which is perhaps best compared to the old “Peanuts” specials.  What’s most strange, of course, is that this lifeless tone is part of the visual style too: Anderson’s trademarked mix of warm colors with cold, mechanical form.

Interestingly, my 17-year-old brother loved it, and considers it one of his favorite movies, but I still didn’t know what a child would think.  Then my little sister walked in about halfway through, and she also loved it (particularly for the fun song about the villains, but also because she’s a Dahl fan).  Of course, what I’m most happy about is that I liked it.  I can’t get into everything about Wes Anderson’s style – he and I have different tastes in terms of desired affects – but by and large, this movie is for me.  It’s such a funny, charming, unique, and creative spin on the genre of animated children’s films that I can’t help but appreciate it.

An American Werewolf in London Review

My appreciation of great horror films is always a little bit limited by the fact that I don’t really care for being scared all that much.  There is still some horror out there that I like, but this film doesn’t have that much of it – most of this film’s horror portions are simply slow builds to jump-scares.  Sometimes fun builds, but the point is still the “startle,” which isn’t my kind of horror.  This film does, however, offer my kind of humor.

Most of the movie is really a sort of bizarre ’80s comedy about a college kid and his buddy having a strange experience abroad, and the character comedy is absolutely delightful.  John Landis knows how to make the minor characters funny as well; the casting of Frank Oz here is perfect, and sometimes finding the right character actor is all it takes for great comedy.  I think that’s what I like so much about this film: Landis brings together different elements that don’t usually get put together, but his careful combination creates a rare and beautiful emotional effect on the viewer – an effect of uneasy laughter.  It’s simply a work of really smart craftsmanship, and while not all of it is the kind of entertainment I’m used to, this film is already inching its way closer and closer to my heart.

Cool Night – Show #4

Featured this week: Aretha Franklin, Toto, and more!

I recorded this episode a while ago and meant to publish it a week or two ago.  Not sure what held me back, because I think it’s a pretty darn good episode.  I hope you enjoy it.

Baby Driver Review

This is the best film of 2017 I’ve seen so far.  Hands down.  Let’s talk about why.

I love it when I see a trailer for an upcoming movie and think, “Oh my gosh – what is this and how was it able to get made in today’s world?”  What puzzled me about the Baby Driver trailer, or at least the particular trailer I saw first, was that it looked like a generic action movie (by generic I mean it contains many of the most common standards of the genre, like impossible car chases and crime bosses who threaten to kill loved ones and 93 guns going off in every scene), but it actually looked good.  As the trailer explained more about the premise of the movie and what conflicts arise in it, I couldn’t help but think that this film must have come from a brilliant auteur – a Chazelle or Scorsese.  Then, with one name, it all made sense to me: Edgar Wright.

Knowing that Wright is a really smart director, and that I share a lot of his tastes, I went into the theater expecting the film to be pretty good … for a “gun flick.”  I couldn’t have known I would later leave the theater wanting it to win Best Picture.  So, herein lies the first reason why Baby Driver is the best film of the year: it made a great movie out of a not-so-great genre.  Where other films in the genre would rely on CGI for their tricks, Wright amazingly depended on practical effects, giving every scene in a car all the more weight.  I think Wright approached this movie like he was making a movie – not like he was making an “action flick,” but like he was just making a good, compelling film – complete with interesting characters, gripping drama, highly inventive visual storytelling, and awesome music.  He took the film seriously as a work of art, and he made sure his story was as compelling as could be, borrowing from as many genres, styles, and influences as needed to accomplish this feat.

Now, I’ve recently written a lot about the Guardians of the Galaxy series, particularly in regards to its use of music.  There’s a trend that I think started around the late ‘80s – it had certainly become the norm by the early 2000s – of film soundtracks relying on a lot of known pop music (particularly older pop music) to add some fun, familiar elements to the film.  This is so normal for comedies, dramas, and comedy-dramas now that we usually don’t even notice it.  This music is generally non-diegetic, but often crosses into diegetic, and is selected very late in the filmmaking process to help establish the mood of a scene.  Marvin Gaye’s “You’re a Wonderful One” clearly has nothing to do with the story to the movie Bowfinger, at least not in its lyrical content, but it appears frequently in the film purely because its fun, bouncy sound reminds the viewer that the movie is fun.  With Guardians, the music is never an afterthought and is virtually always diegetic (or at least semi-diegetic), often taking the foreground in the scene and having an influence on the plot.  I believe this is a game-changer because it’s one of the only film series today to challenge the theory that film is a visual medium, suggesting that sometimes the music is what drives a movie.

Guardians, you’ve just made a friend.

And this is the second reason why Baby Driver is the best film of the year: it uses music brilliantly.  First of all, its soundtrack is very good.  Secondly, and more importantly, the music is often used to create different kinds of scenes that I don’t think I’ve seen before – scenes in which the visuals are so in-sync with the music that lyrics from the song decorate the sets, or scenes with the music turned up and the dialogue turned down such that we’re only left with the general idea of the events taking place, and that’s all we need.  The scene with “Never Never Gonna Give Ya Up” creates a mood that is both weirdly funny and intensely dramatic at once, almost like The Graduate (but for very different reasons).  Heck, Wright even works a song from a live album into the opening scene, which is almost never done in film if the live recording isn’t remarkably well-known, and he keeps the part with the singer speaking to the audience in, all in a way that feels perfectly natural.  Thirdly, and this is perhaps the most impressive part of the movie, Wright uses music to make us feel close to a character with very little dialogue for a lead – we understand what he’s thinking and feeling through his music, and that’s enough to make us empathize with him completely.

The third reason why this film is the greatest of 2017 so far is that it racks up “points for style” like no film I’ve seen from the past 5 years apart from La La Land and the works of Wes Anderson.  I’ve already noted some of this, like the integration of music into the visuals, but some of it’s in the little things, like the way the clothes in the laundromat are all primary colors to create a sense of childlike joy and freedom in a scene with Baby and Debora having fun.  The beauty of the film is in the dramatic red light on the villain’s face in the climax, and the careful use of black and white in a few select scenes, and the way everyone in America is presumed to wear brightly-colored shirts on a sunny day (to contrast the attire in Wright’s films set in Britain).  Wright brings back his old trick of tying what’s playing on the television set into the plot, this time very comically, and he even showed his well-known love for my dearest Phantom of the Paradise by giving Paul Williams a great little part.  It takes a special kind of filmmaker to think to do these things, and I’m so glad we’ve been blessed with just the filmmaker we need in Edgar Wright.

The Land Before Time Review

It’s amazing to me that a multimillion-dollar franchise containing fourteen films began with a movie containing so little.  In its  69-minute runtime, it quickly runs through the “greatest hits” of family films for little kids: the parents die, the protagonist is told to follow his heart and just believe and all that crap, a scary conflict keeps arising, the scary conflict goes away every time, a spiritual mentor reminds the protagonist to follow his heart some more, the main characters set aside their differences and strife to safe one of their own, and the protagonist completes his journey to live happily ever after with his newfound family.  It may sound like a lot when I list it like this, but in a movie, this all happens pretty fast.  In this movie, it all happens without enough necessity – it happens purely because the powers that be (Spielberg, Bluth, and Lucas) want it to, so the movie feels lacking in substance to me.  That being said, I think the franchise works because of its simplicity: it has common movie themes, goals, conflicts, and lessons, thus teaching kids the basics of the standard “Hero’s Journey,” and its cast of main characters are distinct from each other and each memorable and marketable in their own ways.

So, the story doesn’t do much for me, and I don’t like being beaten over the head with the “follow your heart” message, but the visuals are outstanding, and it’s a cute movie for the little ones.