Thursday, June 21, 2018

[Review] The Breadwinner

One of last year's Oscar nominees for Best Animated Feature, The Breadwinner is a harrowing and beautiful tale of strength and family amidst unforgivingly hostile circumstances.

Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) is a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the treacherous Taliban rule. After her gentle and loving father is wrongfully arrested and taken away, Parvana cuts her hair and begins dressing like a boy in order to work to support her family. Along the way, she embarks on a strenuous quest to reunite with her father, while using her vibrant imagination to persevere.

Undoubtedly, this is an emotionally-wrenching story, and Parvana is certainly a character that's easy to root for. Directed by Nora Towney, the film shares some of the same whimsy and somber qualities, as well as the immaculate craft of more serious animated films like The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, which are also told from the wide-eyed, determined perspective of a child. There's even shades of the highly-regarded Persepolis here. The film features some graceful animation, elegantly expressing crisply thin lines and smooth, vivid color palettes. The fantastical fable-like sequences that serve as both inspiration for Parvana and as escapes from her brutal reality are particularly striking with their elaborate designs of grandeur and impressively layered, paper-cutout aesthetic.

The Breadwinner all builds to an affecting climax that is intense, triumphant, tragic, and poetic all at once. It's an honest look at atrocities and turmoil, but there is still courage and innocence to be found, and we can only hope that the Parvanas of the world will continue to shine through.

* 8.5/10 *

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

[Review] Incredibles 2

Everyone's favorite family of crime-fighting superheroes returns for a 14-years-later sequel that somehow feels long overdue yet right on time. Pixar's Incredibles 2 (they dropped the "The" - extra weight, I guess) is an exciting and completely worthy follow-up to its beloved predecessor.

After being condemned and forced underground, the Incredibles have been laying low in a shabby motel room. But it's not long before Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter) is recruited by a top secret agency led by Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) to take down an anonymous evil-doer that goes by "ScreenSlaver." Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) takes on the stay-at-home-dad role. Being a superhero? That's the easy stuff. Staying home all day and changing diapers? That's the hard stuff.

Between its impressively sleek animation, its spunky characters, and its thrilling storyline, Incredibles 2 zips, cruises, and blasts off with a jubilant spark of consistent energy. Whether it's just being straight-up funny, being aww-ingly cute (baby Jack-Jack), flaunting its spectacular powers, or launching into exhilarating and well-designed action sequences -- there's never a dull moment, which puts this film close to on-par with the first one in my eyes. As for the minor gripes -- the villain feels a tad uninspired and predictable, and there aren't any huge emotional punches during the climax, but these aren't total deal-breakers because the film does everything else so excellently.

What also make Incredibles 2 so great is that it's just as human as it is, well... incredible. Sometimes it's the smaller, relatable moments that are the most enjoyable: Dash practically hyperventilating as he runs around their new house and frantically tests out all the advanced remote control features... Violet Parr choking on her water at a restaurant when she realizes her new crush is the waiter... Mr. Incredible's sunken eyes and unkempt appearance after being kept up all night by Jack-Jack...

But of course, the rest of the family, along with fan-favorite Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), eventually suit up and join in on the superhero action too. It would be a crime if they didn't, right?

* 8.5/10 *

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Monday, June 18, 2018

[Review] Tag

This film tells the true, inspirational story of... grown men playing tag? Yes, the bro-com Tag springs forward into a real-life tale about a group of friends that have kept a game of tag going for 30(!) years -- mostly to stay in touch. Every month of May, they sneak up on each other at unexpected times, concoct elaborate schemes and disguises, and sometimes even endure injuries in the process.

Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Buress are cast as the group of friends here, and the plot sees them team up to finally get their "untouchable" buddy Jerry (Jeremy Renner, hilarious) -- who has never been tagged (yes, he has a perfect record) -- before he retires from the game. As you can guess, some crazy, desperate, extreme, and outrageous shenanigans ensue.

The story that Tag is based on honestly pretty amazing -- it's quirky, delightfully innocent, heart-warming, and nostalgic all at once. And while this film's portrayal of the story is a mildly fun romp that has its moments, it doesn't seem to do its source material justice (can we get a documentary?). The script is a bit middle-of-the-road -- it contains a handful of funny lines, but an even bigger handful of ones that just don't connect. The film is best when it embraces its slapstick comedy (after all, tag is a physical game). Folks crash through windows and fall down stairs just to avoid being 'It.' The riotous setpieces include a bumpy high-speed golfcart chase, a strange trap-filled sequence in a dark forest, and a wild confrontation during an AA meeting that turns into a Matrix-style battle with its slow-motion sprints and tossed donuts. It's easily the best scene in the film, aside from the one where of the guy's moms makes them Pizza Rolls. However, the laughs here never reach the heights of Tag's fellow competition comedies Game Night and Blockers from earlier this year.

The cast here is enjoyable, though. Jon Hamm lets loose in a fairly care-free role and still looks dapper and charismatic while doing it. The other two MVPs are Hannibal Buress -- who has some of the best line deliveries here, and then Isla Fisher -- who plays one of the guy's intense wives that takes the game way too seriously and often steals the show because of it.

In the end, Tag stays true to the essence of its beginnings. It's not just about the game, it's about friendship. As Ed Helms' character says "This game has given us a reason to stay in each other's lives." That's it.

( 6.5/10 )

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

[Review] First Reformed

Paul Schrader's latest film First Reformed is a dark, uncomfortable, and tumultuous character drama that has a lot on its mind.

Ethan Hawke plays the deeply introspective and conflicted reverend of First Reformed church in upstate New York. He keeps a nightly journal in which we hear his thoughts through poetic and self-reflective voiceover. The film follows him around as he speaks with and councils various members of the community, and things take a drastic turn when he happens upon a suicide bomber vest in the garage of a local environmental activist (Philip Ettinger).

The picture is presented in a tightly squared aspect ratio, adding a sense of focus and direct intimacy - similar to last year's existential perplexer A Ghost Story. The film displays some pristine framing and cinematography, emphasizing architectural angles and crisp symmetry. The story itself also ruminates on ideas of equal and opposing halves, constant contradictions, and ever-present dualities. Hope and despair. Duty and grace. Pride and humility. Courage and martyrdom. Forgiveness and sin. The narrative is mostly built on long and talky, face-to-face conversations, which might completely bore some audiences. But the scenes are always thematically tense, as they dive into lofty topics such as the state of the planet, future anxieties, and personal and universal plights.

Ethan Hawke is ravishingly good here, and it's one of those roles that is perfect for him. This character is multidimensional -- weary yet stoic, empathetic yet detached, haunted yet faithful. You can see it all in his face. The solid supporting cast includes a superb Amanda Seyfried, as well as Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) in a mostly straight-laced and serious part that is much different than the highly comedic roles we're so used to seeing him in.

First Reform isn't for everyone, but if you're in the mood for a commendably complicated and complex character study that doesn't offer anything easy, it's a film to witness. By the time it's over, Cedric's line rings true as a church bell: "Even a pastor needs a pastor."

( 8/10 )

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

[Review] Cargo

Martin Freeman terrifically leads the way in the Netflix Original Film, Cargo (it's the first one in a while that I've actually dug). It's a dystopian zombie flick, and while this is well-trodden territory, Cargo packs a good amount of intrigue, craft, and reward to sink your teeth into.

Set in a very beige and bleak Australian outback where the population has dwindled due to a nasty virus (it turns people into rabid flesh-eaters), the story revolves around a father named Andy (Freeman) as he attempts to protect his newborn daughter and bring her to safety before his days are up.

The film is crisply shot, taking full advantage of its uniquely rugged landscape across dusty prairies, muddy rivers, and rocky mountains. The narrative also has a strong sense of forward momentum. There's never a lull in conflict or drama (unlike a certain TV show that rhymes with "Stalking Ted"). Every scene feels vital, and there are some really eerie, intense, and heart-pounding sequences along the way. Martin Freeman gives a fantastic central performance, carrying most of the film on his back with great emotional range, grittiness, heart, and determination. Also impressive is Simone Landers, who plays a young indigenous girl that Andy meets during the harsh journey.

Cargo also provides a surprisingly poignant ending that hits in a way reminiscent of another well-wrought zombpocalypse film called Train to Busan. So yeah, load this one up.

( 8/10 )

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