Kubo and the Two Strings

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Earlier this year, I reported that it was very pleasing to see that most of the audience for Zootropolis were over twenty. I had a similar experience when viewing Kubo and the Two Strings – ostensibly  a film aimed at a young audience – in an auditorium with no small children in sight. They missed out, for Kubo and the Two Strings is one of the year’s delights. A fine cast including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara and Matthew McConaughey add lively and emotional voices to director Travis Knight’s stunning visuals, as Kubo and the Two Strings blends drama, humour, heartbreak and action in a seamlessly splendid world of the titular Kubo (Art Parkinson) on the run from his malevolent grandfather, the Moon King (Fiennes). Aided by a sentient monkey (Theron) and a samurai warrior trapped in the body of a giant beetle (McConaughey), Kubo embarks on a mystical quest aided by his magical shamisen that grants life to his origami creations. The visual invention of the film begins at the level of Kubo’s artistry and steadily escalates, with pratfalls that are very funny (mainly involving Beetle), thrilling action sequences involving Kubo’s aunts (Mara), and some moments that are genuinely scary. This is to the film’s credit, as while the scary moments may be strong for small children, they need not be prohibitive and ensure that the film does not lose its nerve. Perhaps the ending is a little soft, but it does provide a fitting ending to a sumptuous and enthralling tale of storytelling, magic and artistry.

Top Ten Directors – Part Four II

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In my last post, I introduced Michael Mann and why his work is important to me. While I find much to admire across his oeuvre, the Mann film that impresses me the most is The Insider, an epic rendering of subject matter that does not seem overly dramatic. Yet by focusing on intimate details and conveying a cumulative and pervasive sense of threat, bewilderment and betrayal, The Insider turns the account of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and the journalist who told his story Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) into a sweeping, enthralling and gripping thriller of corporate, legal and human skulduggery. The criticism of corporatism is handled deftly without being naive or didactic, and the film provides a sober meditation on life within Information Age late capitalism.

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While The Insider is Mann’s finest work, it is not the best introduction to Mann’s oeuvre nor my personal favourite. The quintessential Mann film, the one that serves as the perfect introduction to this singular body of work, is my favourite film of all time, Heat.

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Despite the iconicity of Heat‘s central pairing, the most annoying thing about responses to the film is the reductive view that it is all about Al Pacino and Robert De Niro meeting on screen for the first time. If you ever needed proof that great actors do not equal great films, look no further than Al and Bob’s (we hang out all the time) subsequent collaboration, Righteous Kill (2008). Heat‘s majesty is elevated by the central performances, but they are two in a wide ensemble that includes Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Ashley Judd, Diane Venora, Tom Sizemore, Natalie Portman, Amy Brenneman and many others. The different plot lines for these characters – many of whom never encounter each other – cause Heat to resemble Los Angeles-set network narratives such as Magnolia (1999), Boogie Nights (1997) and Crash (2004), albeit with a more generic central thrust. Mann has a long-standing association with the crime genre and Heat is a major part of that association, but the film does not sit comfortably within generic confines. Rather, the film pushes against these confines and uses the tropes of a cops and robbers thriller to create an intricate, existential and sociological portrait of life in a late twentieth century metropolis. Tensions around gender, race, class and work abound, while the frequent motion of the narrative, the characters and the camera creates a sense of transience and instability, despite the imposing concrete structures of the buildings and freeways.

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Neil McCauley (De Niro) describes LA as the city of lights, but what he neglects to mention and that the film highlights is that these lights are isolated and disconnected, as are the inhabitants. Relationships fracture and fragment across the film, often due to violent action such as the opening heist, the incredible central gun battle and the final chase through LAX. But away from the bullets, personal differences also drive people apart, these differences exacerbated by this environment of disconnection and inconstancy. At least six intimate relationships are destroyed over the course of the film, largely by the actions of intractable men who neither know how nor want to do anything else. Nor does the film neglect its female characters despite their relatively brief screentime, as it is the women who recognise and lament what Justine (Diane Venora) describes as ‘the mess you leave as you pass through’. Heat is a sweeping, intricate and enveloping story, intensely detailed, stunningly visualised and thunderingly rendered, representing many concerns that run throughout Mann’s work, making it the archetypal Mann film, and one of the finest crime thrillers of the 1990s.

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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

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Suicide Squad

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Earlier in 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice began the assembly of a super team, but before Justice League arrives, DC offers Suicide Squad, a colourful collection of nefarious folks including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Boomerang (Jai Courtney). Assembled by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller (a supremely supercilious Viola Davis) and led by crack commando Colonel Rick Flag (Scott Derrickson), these misanthropic personalities are typical fare for writer-director David Ayer, whose previous films Fury, Street Kings and Harsh Times featured violent men doing violent work. Suicide Squad lacks the savagery of those films, the supposed ruthlessness of the super villains largely toned down, while the meandering plot repeatedly introduces characters and replays events unnecessarily, and the various pop songs associated with particular characters are more distracting that engaging. Worse, the charismatic and potentially terrifying Joker (Jared Leto) is sidelined and feels like an intrusion from another film, and might have been better left for a future instalment.

Ayer redeems himself with some stylistic set pieces, the Squad hurling bullets, mallet, flames, boomerangs and bodies with elegant brutality. Central to these and probably the best thing in the film is Deadshot, a smart combination of wisecracking humour and deadly precision, and the character with the most relatable arc. Smith and Ayer make a virtue of the clichéd character traits to create a wounded but unquestionably badass antihero. Smith could have been in Independence Day: Resurgence this year, and based on the evidence, he made a wise decision.

The BFG

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Roald Dahl and Steven Spielberg are significant parts of many childhoods. Both artists use an exquisite method of storytelling that captures that most elusive of elements – true wonder. It is, therefore, perhaps surprising that Spielberg has not directed an adaptation of a Dahl novel until now, but it was the worth the wait as The BFG delivers exactly what could be expected of this dream combination. From the lovingly crafted streets of London to the intricate maze of the Big Friendly Giant’s (Mark Rylance) home and workshop, Spielberg and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg place the viewer in the position of the enchanting Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) as she learns about giants, Giant Country and dreams. DOP Janusz Kaminsky lenses the film in soft hues, while capturing two bravura sequences in single shots. These set pieces convey wonder and thrills both as spectacle and experience, while screenwriter Melissa Mathison imbues the Buckingham Palace sequences with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) with laugh out loud comedy moments. Performance capture and digital effects bring the BFG to startling life, Rylance’s performance one of charming innocence which rivals that of Sophie. This guileless innocence and childlike charm are the greatest strengths of the film, even if at times it is thematically insubstantial. Reminiscent in its finest moments of Spielberg and Mathison’s precious collaboration, E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The BFG confirms Spielberg’s place as Hollywood’s enduring crafter of cinematic dreams, and the timelessness of Dahl’s beautiful storytelling.

Finding Dory

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Pixar’s follow-up to their 2003 ocean odyssey Finding Nemo fulfills several functions of a sequel. It reunites the central characters of Dory (Ellen Degeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence) for another wacky adventure; it expands the fictional world with new environments, characters and situations; it explains Dory’s backstory that was never explored in the original. As a result, Finding Dory fleshes (fishes?) out the overall mythos, introducing the utterly adorable infant Dory (Sloane Murray) and her short term memory loss, as well as the events that led to her meeting Marlin and the events of Finding Nemo. One year after those events, Dory remembers something and sets off to find her family, with Marlin and Nemo along for the tide (sorry). The great strength of Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane’s follow-up is that it is not simply another oceanic search, as the majority of the action takes place at a Marine Life Institute. This environment constitutes a wonderfully diverse obstacle course for our finned friends, as they travel from sea to tank to pool to pipe, with the odd bucket and drinking vessel along the way. Familiar faces reappear such as Mr Ray (Bob Peterson) and Crush (Andrew Stanton), while the institute features a wonderful cavalcade of new characters, including Destiny the myopic whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), Bailey the beluga (Ty Burrell) who fears his echolocation, Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) the rock-jealous sea lions. Much as Dory proved to be the star of Finding Nemo, the breakout star of Finding Dory is Hank the traumatised octopus (Ed O’Neill) (or as Dory points out, septopus). Hank’s changing form creates many of the film’s funniest moments, the relationship between him and Dory growing through the trials and tribulations that they encounter. These trials are sometimes intense and distressing, but Stanton and MacLane never overplay the drama, balancing heart-wrenching instances with many laugh out loud moments. While it may not reach the depths of Pixar’s best, Finding Dory still offers gallons of intelligent fun.

Star Trek Beyond

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I have a confession to make: I was trepidatious about Star Trek Beyond because of director Justin Lin’s back catalogue. As Lin has previously directed four Fast and Furious films, I anticipated that Star Trek Beyond would offer fury and speed at the expense of concept and exploration. To my delight, Lin’s film turned out to be more sedate and measured than the previous entries in the Star Trek universe directed by J. J. Abrams, paying attention to the tedium of space travel after several years in space, as Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) laments in his log. Not that Star Trek Beyond is lacking in exhilarating action set pieces and some breathtaking moments. A particular highlight is the gorgeously designed space station Yorktown, effectively a planet designed inside out with multiple planes radiating out from a central core, each with their own gravitational axes. Yorktown is illustrative of the film as a whole, a beautifully designed and cogent world with a clear identity, to a greater extent than Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. Whereas the Abrams-directed films struggled to incorporate elements of the original Star Trek while also being fresh and new, Star Trek Beyond strikes just the right balance of tradition and innovation. The film offers the flash and shine of new Trek with affection and warmth for this 50 year-old franchise. Much of this warmth can be credited to the script of Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, while Pegg along with the rest of the cast now fit comfortably into their characters. Despite being released in year of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, Star Trek Beyond is not overloaded with importance. There are references to earlier films such as The Search for Spock and Generations, as well as TV series including Enterprise, but these are well integrated into the drama. Similarly, the film includes a hearty but not overplayed message in the vein of Trek moralising. An annoying trend in contemporary blockbusters is the tendency to overplay their hand, getting bigger to the extent of being bloated (yes, Age of Ultron and Batman V Superman, I mean you). For all the epic grandeur of the final frontier, Star Trek Beyond goes the other way, being sleeker, more intimate and all the more satisfying for it.