Guardians of the Galaxy 2 Review

“I am Groot.

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Here’s the short version: Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is great fun. Engaging, largely hilarious, and just plain fun.

Admittedly there are moments when it feels like they’re trying too hard (including occasional instances when the comedy is overdone, forced, and/or uncomfortable), and it doesn’t quite have sense of wonder of first movie since we’ve seen Quill and company before, but overall this was a fantastic ride.

The plot’s a little more focused and the characters are developed well, including nice spotlights on Nebula and Yondu, and a strong debut for newcomer Mantis. Of course as expected the show stealer is Baby Groot, who’s done pitch perfectly to be adorable, funny, and engaging without crossing over into annoyance. The movie’s absolutely BURIED in pop culture references, but it fits with Quill’s character as established in the first movie.

I had a wonderful time with Guardians 2, to the point where I got so caught up in the ride and enjoying the movie’s twists and turns I forgot about a couple things I had predicted would happen in this movie to the point I was surprised when they occurred. Can’t ask for much more than that in terms of immersion.

 

 

Your Name. Review

“Who am I? No, who are YOU!”

Mitsuha and Taki are strangers living very different everyday lives that change dramatically when they start waking up in each others’ bodies at random intervals in dreams that are all too real. Getting to know each other by proxy the longer this goes on, something more is happening in the shadow of their strange situation.

 

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Your Name. is as striking and impactful as Makoto Shinkai’s previous works, with perhaps a touch more polish. As always the visuals are absolutely breathtaking, both in the gorgeous environments and backgrounds that bring the movie’s world to life and in engaging character animation that adds great emotional impact to the story through facial expressions and body language.

Such detail and precision to the animation is used to great effect to make the story engaging, which is particularly important in the body switching scenes. The film would not have the resonance it does if the audience couldn’t immediately tell the difference between Mitsuha and “Taki in Mitsuha’s body” and vice versa.

I found the pacing here interesting, with the first half of the movie having a tv feel to it. The opening sequence and certain montages particularly bring to mind the pacing and certain elements of a tv series rather than a movie. It’s executed well and works nicely to allow establishment of a specific atmosphere as the baseline of Shinkai’s tale.

Your Name. walks a fine line thematically, but does it well. It’s infused with Shinkai’s usual evocative, sometimes biting, observations of the human condition, but well balanced with light and heartwarming touches among an emotionally affecting journey. There’s of course more going on than it appears, but the story always remains strongly centered on the characters and grows from their desires and actions. Shinkai’s trademark ability to pull on his viewer’s heartstrings was also in full effect, and I certainly felt my emotions being played like a fiddle at moments (and I mean that in a positive way).

While I’ve been impressed with all of Shinkai’s movies, I’ve liked some much more than others. I feel this is one of his best, right up with Children Who Chase Lost Voices as my favorite. Add in the previously mentioned incredible animation, and Your Name. is well worth catching during its limited theater run.

 

 

Ocean Waves Review

On the verge of his high school reunion, Taku recalls how all his problems began with a transfer student’s arrival.

 

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The 20+ year old “lost” Studio Ghibli classic featuring high school love and all the awkwardness that goes with it finally sees a US release, and I had the opportunity to catch it during limited screenings in NYC.

For context, I’m a middle of the road Ghibli fan. I appreciate the general quality and have favorites among their films that I consider incredible, but I don’t go crazy for every movie they do and was lukewarm on several I’ve seen (and outright hated one).

So I had no preconceived expectations really, which made it even more interesting when this fell firmly in  the gray area of my personal opinion. Most things have high and low points, but usually there’s a predominant overall impression, be it good, bad, or indifferent.

Recently I played a video game (Zero Time Dilemma) that bucked that trend for me in that I both liked and disliked in pretty much equal measure. That same conflicting batch of feelings perfectly describes my reaction to Ocean Waves.

Given that most of the film is told as a memory, there’s a fog of “unreliable narrator” feeling that envelopes the story. It’s the epitome of a double edged sword here. It makes sense that certain things would be more vivd in his mind than others and that he wouldn’t always notice or know other’s motivations, which helps establish the drama and his personal point of view as main character, but it also presents characterization issues with regards to the rest of the cast. A big part of the problem is that the film conveys early on that most of what we’re seeing is a memory, but then presents that memory in the style of objective reality, which leads to thematic and empathy issues.

Arguably the third most important character in the film felt like nothing more than a story prop to me after a decent introduction. He acted as the plot demanded instead of naturally, and needed to come across as much more likable than he was for the themes to click properly.

The narrator’s narrow field of view also causes a particular moment that should have been meaningful and dramatic to instead end up uncomfortable and cringeworthy. I know the point is supposed to be that he doesn’t understand where the other person is coming from and acts out because of it, but without due exploration of the other person’s side of things the movie appears to be taking sides, to ill effect.  All in all I spent most of the movie wanting to like everyone more than I actually did.

Yet there’s still something incredibly captivating about Ocean Waves, particularly in the latter half. I really wanted to know what happened to Taku, Rikako, and Yutaka almost despite myself. Their reactions felt authentic even when not built up fully and the oddness of everyday life and everyday worries was captured with a deftness I’ve seldom seen. The movie shines in its small moments, when the story gets out of its own way.

I wouldn’t give Ocean Waves a strong recommendation, but again I did like as much about it as I disliked. I think overall what it does right overcomes its flaws enough to be a worthwhile watch despite my highly mixed feelings (and of course others end up loving it if their tastes and tolerances are different from mine).

 

 

Quick Takes: Magnificent 7, Jason Bourne, Suicide Squad, and X-men: Apocalypse

So if there’s one thing a 14 hour plane ride is good for, it’s catching up on movies I’ve missed. Here are brief thoughts on four films I plowed through on my way to Japan last month.

 

The Magnificent Seven

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Watched this on a whim, mostly due to the impressive cast. Decent Western with good setting, although the story would have been stronger if it was more along the lines of its synopsis. It wasn’t a bunch of guns for hire that grew to care the more they learned about the situation, as their “leader” Washington was never there for the money in the first place. It hampered the themes a bit. Also, some characters (such as Pratt in a remarkable performance) were much more interesting than others and stole the spotlight when the movie focused on them. Still, overall this was pretty compelling.

 

 

Jason Bourne

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Here we have the first of three movies I had waited on because of less than favorable reviews. As will become a theme for all three, it was better than I expected.

Though their trademark “shaky camera” fight scenes always leave me near nausious, I enjoyed the previous three Jason Bourne movies and was happy with Damon’s return to the role. This was definitely a retread in numerous thematic ways, but I thought the story fit with and expanded upon the previous narratives nicely. Not fantastic, but good enough.

 

 

Suicide Squad

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Well first off this wasn’t nearly as horrible as I’d heard. It was a mixed bag though, with highlights and weakness throughout the film. My biggest worry from what I’d seen in trailers was Smith as Deadshot, and those worries were both justified and unfounded. Smith actually played a fine character and played it well, but it didn’t feel like Deadshot at all. Writing weakness there. Similarly while this was an ok action film with some interesting plot and character touches, it didn’t feel like Suicide Squad. Glad I checked it out, but nothing I ever need to see again.

 

 

X-Men Apocalypse

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From word of mouth I expected a trainwreck from the latest X-Men movie, and in contrast I found a solid story that built off of First Class and Days of Future Past well. It’s admittedly not as good as those two films and so big in scope some characters (looking at you Psylocke) got shorted in the script and were underdeveloped. The overall arc was good though, Apocalypse was a worthy foe, and my biggest worry (Magneto as a Horseman) was done logically.

 

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So overall I spent a pretty enjoyable time on my flight with four films that provided both nothing extraordinary and nothing really bad. I don’t regret either skipping them at the theaters nor eventually watching them.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

“What chance do we have?”

“What choice do we have?

 

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At their core, the main Star Wars movies are high adventure tales of good versus evil. There is some depth to the characters, but the general themes always boil down to Rebellion / Light Side good and Empire / Dark Side bad in a black and white way. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – the approach suited the stories being told and captured the imagination of the viewers leading to Star Wars becoming a beloved and near timeless universe.

But Rogue One beautifully demonstrates that there’s also room for something else in said universe: exploration of the shades of gray realities of warfare hidden in the crevices of Star Wars’ space opera scope. Whereas the main movies often embrace the themes of people losing their way and redemption, Rogue One is the story of people with with valid, nuanced reasons for things like wanting to avoid conflict, doing bad things for good reasons, etc.

It’s more drama than adventure, and yet feels just as right as a proper part of what’s come before. It’s fairly seamlessly woven into established mythos and provides a compelling prelude to A New Hope, retconning and explaining away some long standing possible plot holes without causing further logic problems.

In addition, as I mentioned above, there are harsh realities and difficult choices to be faced by the characters. I found the movie incredibly well written and acted. There’s a particularly fantastic confrontation in the middle where both participants in an argument are right, and both are wrong, and the movie rightfully resists any sort of easy answers. It’s the type of scene I simply don’t see existing with such effectiveness in the main movies, and I adore the extra layer it adds to the franchise. I also love the fact that this exploration was done in a spin-off and given proper space to develop as needed, rather than crammed into the “regular” movies where the formulas might clash.

Rogue One was excellent and I hope we see more side stories of this type to compliment the continuing epic adventures told in the main series in the future.

 

Doctor Strange Review

“We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them.

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Doctor Strange is perhaps the hardest Marvel Comics hero they’ve tried to adapt so far, yet the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch (and several excellent supporting actors) had expectations fairly high for the latest puzzle piece in the unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was extremely curious as to how the mythical elements and certain parts of the mythos would be handled, and for most part really liked what they came up with.

Being both a Marvel movie and the origin of a new hero to the MCU, there are formulaic and cliched elements to Stephen Strange’s introduction. Also, some of the supporting actors are considerably better than what they were given to work with.

That said, everything did come together extremely well due to nice touches of foreshadowing here and there and a couple of strong twists. Strange himself, the Ancient One, and Mordo were given nice complexities and reasonable depth, and were all superbly acted. The special effects were brilliant and really anchored the idea of magic in the MCU along with of course providing the expected spectacles and chaotic actions sequences. The climactic battle is stunning, clever, and totally in character, which is everything I could have asked of it.

There are little things in Doctor Strange that could have been done to elevate it even farther, but by the same token there are numerous little things that WERE done that add up to make the Sorcerer Supreme’s screen debut a thoroughly enjoyable endeavor.

 

Paprika Review

“Night dreams of Day, and Light dreams of Darkness.”

A groundbreaking technological advancement called the “DC Mini” aims to enable revolutionary treatments by directly interacting with patients’ dreams. However test patient Detective Toshimi Konakawa and Doctor Atsuko Chiba are caught up in much more than an experiment when the DC Mini is stolen.

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Satoshi Kon’s four movies are all excellent and form a collection of extremely diverse, impactful tales, and his final film is perhaps the most ambitious of them all. I recently had an opportunity to revisit Paprika in 35mm glory thanks to a special 1oth Anniversary screening at Japan Society. It was such a treat to see this glorious assault on the senses in that form.

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Paprika feels different in emotional resonance from Kon’s other films, perhaps due to it being an adaptation instead of original work. The characters are interesting and carry the story well, but don’t have quite the depth of those in Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, and Tokyo Godfathers (although both Konakawa and the titular heroine do face some nice introspection and growth at points).

Here the events and action are spotlit somewhat more, with a constant barrage of weird happenings that manage to be both zany and creepy at every step. The visuals are absolutely incredible, with vivid colors and wild, semi-abstract images pouring all over the screen.

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But the genius is that there is always a framework, with repeated dream images and themes and limits to how abstract things get, as well as equally impressive environments and attention to the art during the quiet moments. It all comes together to ensure the story can always be tracked and suspense can build. There are several beautifully executed moments that are just breathtaking.

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Elevating all I’ve mentioned even further is a phenomenal score that blends seamlessly and unobtrusively accentuates the action as well as the emotional undercurrents of each scene. Pieces of music from the movie have been stuck in my head for days, which in this case I have no objections to. 😉

One last thing I’ll mention is the plethora of delightful references and Easter eggs strewn throughout, from fun characters and costumes donned by Parprika in the dream sequences to amusing nods to Kon’s other films. Filmmaking is a theme as prevalent in Paprika as the meaning of dreams is, and excellent use is made of both for both story gravity and added layers of fun.

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There’s disagreement over whether Paprika quite reaches the heights of Kon’s other movies, but either way it is a wonderful experience in its own right. Strap in for the ride, and enjoy the trippy, wild visual feast.