Thursday, 14 February 2019

Film Review: "Alita: Battle Angel" (2019).

"An Angel Falls. A Warrior Rises" in Alita: Battle Angel. This cyberpunk action film directed by Robert Rodriguez, adapted by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis, based on the manga series Gunnm, also known as Battle Angel Alita, by Yukito Kishiro. A deactivated female cyborg is revived, but cannot remember anything of her past life and goes on a quest to find out who she is.

Kishiro's manga was originally brought to Cameron's attention by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, and Cameron immediately became enamored with the concept. In April 2003, the project was officially announced to be Cameron's next film after Titanic (1997). Cameron confirmed in an interview that the film would be a combination of the first four books of the manga (taking the story from the first two books, and Motorball from the third and fourth books). In another interview, Cameron also said that should this film be successful, he hopes to make another two films. However, the film was repeatedly delayed due to Cameron's work on Avatar (2009) and its sequels. After years of languishing in development hell, Rodriguez was announced to helm the project in April 2016. In May, Rosa Salazar was cast in the title role, after Zendaya, Maika Monroe and Bella Thorne were considered. By mid October, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Eiza González, and Michelle Rodriguez rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography began, with a budget of $200 million. Filming took place in Austin, Texas and Wellington, New Zealand, utilizing the 3D Fusion Camera System, facial performance capture, and the Simulcam. In early February 2017, filming wrapped. Like Avatar, the visual effects were provided by Weta Digital, DNEG and Framestore and supervised by Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, Nick Epstein, Raymond Chen and Nigel Denton-Howes. The film included roughly 1,500 visual effects shots, just 300 visual effects shots less than Avatar. In early December, the first trailer was released to a polarizing response, focusing on Alita's appearance, especially her big eyes.

The film stars Salazar as the title character with Waltz, Connelly, Ali, Skrein, Earle Haley, Johnson, González, and Rodriguez. The cast gave spectacular performances, especially Salazar, who made another great addition to the James Cameron hall of strong female characters. However, Alita's journey, unlike those women, is that of a born-warrior who learns to find her humanity.

When watching Alita: Battle Angel, I felt sort of the same as when I saw Avatar in 2009. The film employs a new generation of special effects, and it is not simply a sensational entertainment, it's a technical breakthrough. However, for the film to stand the test of time, what really matters is the story. And here it falls short. One can't help but feel that it's story is merely a nearly two-and-a-half hour trailer for the real story. It might be more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but the film reaffirms Cameron and Rodriguez's singular gift for imaginative, absorbing, and kinetic filmmaking.

Simon says Alita: Battle Angel receives:

Also, see my review for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Film Review: "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part" (2019).

"The Universe is Expanding" in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. This computer-animated musical adventure comedy film directed by Mike Mitchell, written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and produced by Warner Animation Group and Animal Logic. It is a sequel to The Lego Movie (2014), it is the fourth film in the franchise, following The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie (both 2017). It's been five years since everything was awesome and the citizens are facing a huge new threat: Lego Duplo invaders from outer space, wrecking everything faster than they can rebuild.

In early February 2014, after the release of The Lego Movie, Jared Stern and Michelle Morgan were hired to pen the sequel. In mid March, Deadline reported that animation co-director Chris McKay would direct the sequel with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as producers. In late July, it was reported that Chris Pratt and Will Arnett might return to their roles of Emmet and Batman, although it was not confirmed. In October 2014, Warner Bros. scheduled The Lego Batman Movie for 2017, and The Lego Movie 2 for May 25, 2018. In the same month, it was also reported that Lord and Miller had signed on to pen the sequel. In addition, it was announced that Australia-based animation studio Animal Logic was in talks to produce the next three Lego films, though the deal was not finalized. In late February 2015, the title of the sequel was confirmed to be The Lego Movie Sequel, and it was to be directed by Rob Schrab, replacing McKay, who went on to direct The Lego Batman Movie instead. By November, Miller announced that the first draft of the script was completed, even though Lord and Miller would go on to rewrite the script during production. By February 2017, Schrab was replaced by Mitchell, who reportedly left the director's chair due to "creative differences". In early October, Production began in Canada. From late March 2018 onwards, it was reported that Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Cobie Smulders, and Will Ferrell were confirmed to reprise their roles. The cast was further rounded out with Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Richard Ayoade, Margot Robbie, Jason Momoa, and Maya Rudolph as new additions. In May, the film was officially renamed The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, and was pushed back to a February 8th 2019 release date.

The film stars Pratt, Banks, Arnett, Day, Brie, Offerman, and Ferrell, who once again gave performances that were entertaining, even though it was not as fresh as the first time round. The film also stars Haddish, Beatriz, and Rudolph, who all gave performances that put unique spin on their characters, like the cast in the first film.

While not as clever or inventive as its predecessor, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part compensates with enough dazzling visuals to keep younger viewers entertained.

Simon says The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part receives:

Also, see my review for The Lego Batman Movie and Trolls.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Film Review: "They Shall Not Grow Old" (2018).

"A ground-breaking documentary directed and produced by Peter Jackson" comes They Shall Not Grow Old. This World War I documentary film directed and produced by Jackson. Using state-of-the-art technology and materials from the BBC and Imperial War Museum, Jackson allows the story of World War I to be told by the men who were there. Life on the front is explored through the voices of the soldiers, who discuss their feelings about the conflict, the food they ate, the friends they made and their dreams of the future. The title was inspired by the line "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old" from the 1914 poem For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, famous for being used in the Ode of Remembrance.

In 2015, Jackson was first approached about working on the film by 14-18 NOW and Imperial War Museums in association with the BBC. Jackson was allowed unlimited access to the IWM film archives, as well as the BBC's film and TV library. He was told he could do whatever he wanted with the project just as long as it was respectful and interesting. This would mark Jackson's first documentary since the mockumentary Forgotten Silver in 1995, and the West Memphis Three documentary West of Memphis in 2012. Jackson intended for the film to be an immersive experience of "what it was like to be a soldier" rather than a story or a recount of events. Jackson commented: "This is not a story of the First World War, it is not a historical story, it may not even be entirely accurate but it's the memories of the men who fought - they're just giving their impressions of what it was like to be a soldier." Jackson's own paternal grandfather, Sgt. William Jackson, to whom the film is dedicated, was British and fought in World War I; Peter grew up with his father telling him his grandfather's war stories. Jackson stated that after making the film, he now had "a greater understanding of what my grandfather would have gone through." Jackson considers this his most personal film, due to his lifelong fascination with WWI and the resonance he felt through his grandfather who died before his birth due to war injuries. Such was his interest in the subject that when production on the documentary began he already had a large personal collection in storage of WW1 uniforms and weapons to be used for reference.

The film was created using original footage of World War I from the IWM's archives, most of it previously unseen, alongside audio from BBC and IWM interviews of British servicemen who fought in the conflict. Most of the footage has been colourized and transformed with modern production techniques, with the addition of sound effects and voice acting to be more evocative and feel closer to the soldiers' actual experiences. According to Jackson, the crew reviewed 600 hours of interviews from the BBC and the IWM, and 100 hours of original film footage from the IWM to make the film. Jackson claimed a full year was spent just reviewing the material "just to get their archive in better shape". All the footage was originally shot in monochrome and was colourized by Jackson's Wingnut Films. The original footage was shot back in the 1910's before the ability to synchronize sound and pictures had been invented. Experiments in colour motion picture photography go back about ten years before the first world war began and some WW1 colour footage made in an early process called 'Kinecolor' was known to have been made but is not used in this film. Details such as grass and dirt proved to be the most challenging items to colorize. Some of the actual locations were identified, and Jackson went there himself and shot thousands of photos to use as reference. Asides from the impressive computer augmented colourization of the monochrome film, one of the things Jackson wanted to sort out was for the film to play at a normal speed so the action seen appeared normal and not jerky and jarring. At the time, the film was advanced by the cameraman turning handle at a roughly constant speed. This was also accomplished by a sophisticated computer algorithm, that surprised even Jackson with how well it did its job when the film was being scanned. As for sound, it was synchronized with a constant-speed clockwork or electric motor. Consequently, every single sound effect was added later. It was a deliberate choice not to identify the soldiers or battlegrounds as that would ground the film in too many facts and slow it down. Instead, the desire was to make this about the experience of being a soldier. The interviews came from 200 veterans, with the audio from 120 of them being used in the film. After receiving the footage, Jackson decided that the movie would not feature traditional narration, and that it would instead only feature audio excerpts of the soldiers talking about their war memories, in order to make the film about the soldiers themselves; for the same reason, it barely features any dates or named locations. Voices of the soldiers in the restored footage were added by professionally reading their lips, and then (for the sake of accuracy) hiring voice actors from the same area of Great Britain that the soldiers had hailed from. One bit of footage that had been used often in prior documentaries, of an officer reading a statement to his troops, would not yield to this method (likely because of the officer's mustache), but Jackson was able to find the text of a candidate statement in the archives of the regiment involved. He recorded it at various speeds himself, and it proved to match the footage. Jackson did not receive any fee for the making of the film.

Quite aside from being perhaps the most extraordinary technical achievement in Jackson's career to date, They Shall Not Grow Old is a brilliant piece of moviemaking. It will surely be as elusive to find it in a cinema near you as any undervalued gem is, but if you can see it, do see it.

Simon says They Shall Not Grow Old receives:

Film Review: "Velvet Buzzsaw" (2019).

"All art is dangerous" in Velvet Buzzsaw. This satirical supernatural horror film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. A feared critic, an icy gallery owner and an ambitious assistant snap up a recently deceased artist's stash of paintings - with dire consequences.

The genesis of the film came to Gilroy after having visited the Dia contemporary-art gallery in Beacon, New York in 2017. In an interview with Vanity Fair he reminisced: "It was the Tuesday after Christmas, at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and no one was there. I was wandering around this huge, empty warehouse with all this rather disturbing contemporary art. And I wound up in the basement in a video installation with, like, dentist chairs and rats running around. And I just thought, 'Man, this would be a great place for a horror movie.' The idea that artists invest their souls in their work and it's more than a commodity--that has always interested me. I suddenly saw a way of incorporating it all, to explore how, when art and commerce are dangerously out of balance, bad things can happen. It clicked very quickly." Hours later, he came up with a rough plot. Gilroy, who calls himself "a contemporary-art aficionado who doesn't collect", went down a rabbit hole of research about the contemporary art world, working with multiple advisors during the course of process of writing and filming. When asked by Vanity Fair what he wants audiences take away from the film, Gilroy said: "I hope people look at art in a slightly different way. Any time you listen to a piece of music or look at a sculpture or a painting or a film, you realize the artists behind that have invested what I believe to be their creative soul into the work. To me, that's a bit of a sacred thing and I think we've lost that a little bit. I would love it if we could return to that."

In June 2017, it was announced Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo had been cast in Gilroy's then untitled film, with him writing and directing the film, and Netflix would produce and distribute the film. Gilroy has written the characters of Rhodora Haze and Morf Vandewalt specifically for Russo and Gyllenhaal. He explained to Vanity Fair: "Jake plays Morf Vandewalt, who's a contemporary art critic. And his character is the protagonist who leads us through the film and he takes us deeper and deeper into a mystery that leads to a final shocking realization. Rene plays Rhodora Haze, who started in a punk band in the 70s and now runs the biggest contemporary art gallery in Los Angeles. She was a musician who turned her back away from art to making money and she's been very good at it." Long before a single frame was shot, Gilroy stated that the film would have a The Player (1992) vibe. He took inspiration from Robert Altman's huge ensemble type of filmmaking. Speaking with Business Insider in November 2017, Gilroy teased the project saying: "It's set in the world of contemporary art in Los Angeles, and its got a Robert Altman-like large ensemble cast. It's got a The Player vibe to it. There's a large cast and we're moving around from person to person as we move through this world. The story is being told through these different characters." In January 2018, it was announced the title was Velvet Buzzsaw. By early March 2018, Zawe Ashton, Natalia Dyer, Tom Sturridge, Daveed Diggs, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Billy Magnussen had rounded out the cast. Around the same time, principal photography began in Los Angeles, California. 

The film stars Gyllenhaal, Russo, Collette, Ashton, Sturridge, Dyer, Diggs, Magnussen and Malkovich. The cast gave terrifically performances. For most of them, art and the art scene are their bread and butter. They are loathsome and insufferably pretentious. They are also monsters - fiends who prey upon artists and seek to profit off their art, or destroy it. The cast's performances are spot-on leeches, spewing forth pretentiousness like judgmental critics, but they never goes so far as to make their characters someone you don't recognize.

Restless, visually sleek, and powered by schlocky star performances from the cast, Velvet Buzzsaw offers dark, thought-provoking thrills. Gilroy demonstrates an uncommon assurance, not only in his audacious tonal shifts but in the stellar work he elicits from his cast and crew. A dark comedy and thriller rolled into one. The film kept me on the edge of my seat and senses. It bleeds. It leads. I followed. And, so will you. The film attacks the contemporary art scene and its global commercialization that create an insufferable class of pretentious critics and consumers. The movie is a bit soulless, but that's the point. The film is fully the sum of its parts, with winning central performances, a blackly comic screenplay and a handful of brilliant set pieces, it is worth your time. Tense, atmospheric, chilling and always engaging, added to by a tense soundtrack, the film is a special, often dark, film that strides over a minefield of morals. Nightcrawler is tense and appalling, yet strangely funny, intriguing and engaging at the same time. Watch it. The film, on its surface, is a relatively straightforward supernatural horror, built around a slightly improbable but very powerful antagonist, a dead artist who seeks to punish those who seek to profit off of his and other artists' works. What's fascinating about this movie is the way in which Gilroy treats his characters. they're framed as unlikable adults rather than the typical likeable teenage heroes usually associated with the genre. A slow pace, a taut story, and vividly, hellish and unnerving performances from it cast; Gilroy has crafted the most original thriller of the year. Velvet Buzzsaw will haunt you for days. Written crisply, directed unapologetically and acted brutally, the film is the best film of the year so far. What a slick and thrilling B-movie this is.

Simon says Velvet Buzzsaw receives:

Also, see my review for Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Monday, 28 January 2019

Film Review: "Cold War" ("Zimna wojna") (2018).

"Love has no borders" in Cold War (Zimna wojna). This Polish historical period drama film directed by Paweł Pawlikowski, and co-written by Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki and Piotr Borkowski. Set against the backdrop of the 1950s Cold War in Poland, two people of differing backgrounds and temperaments begin an almost impossible romance.

The main characters were loosely based on the real-life creators of the world-renowned Polish folk dance group, Zespól Piesni i Tanca Mazowsze (Mazowsze), which consisted of Tadeusz Sygietynski and Mira Ziminska. The troupe was founded after the war and still active. Sygietynski and Ziminska were married and after the war toured the countryside in search of talented young folk singers and dancers. They also composed the song "Dwa serduszka, cztery oczy", which is the leitmotiv of the movie. Once he had his characters in mind, Pawlikowski looked for a way to bring them together and the music became essential to the film. The turbulent relationship between the main characters was inspired by Pawlikowski's real-life parents, whose names the protagonists share. They did break up and get together a couple of times as well as moved from one country to another. The film is dedicated to Pawlikowski's parents. Legendary actress Lauren Bacall was in mind when Pawlikowski and actress Joanna Kulig were developing the character of Zula, especially for the screen legend's sarcastic delivery of dialogue.

The film stars Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Jeanne Balibar, and Cédric Kahn. The performances, given by the cast, were splendidly acted. The characters of Wiktor and Zula, as played, stupendously, by Kot and Kulig, are a vortex, as fascinating to spend time with as they are bottomlessly tender. Tremendously bittersweet as the couple in post-war Poland; they have the inscrutability of oppression and lack of freedom.

Empathetically written, splendidly acted, and beautifully photographed, Cold War finds director Pawel Pawlikowski revisiting his roots to powerful effect. With breathtaking concision and clarity—85 minutes of austere, carefully framed black and white—Mr. Pawlikowski penetrates the darkest, thorniest thickets of Polish history, reckoning with the aftermath of World War II. From 1940s until the 1960s, Poland lost a fifth of its population. In the two years after the war, Communists took over the government under the eyes of the Red Army and the Soviet secret police, the N.K.V.D.. Many Poles, who were oppressed by the Soviet Union, were searching and yearning for freedom of the West; the prominent citizens were forced to play into the communist propaganda machine. In the film, all of this is not only stated, but it is all built, so to speak, into the atmosphere. Bittersweet in tone, but not without its moments of pure joy, the haunting black-and-white art-house film is brilliantly crafted. It's done in hard-focus black-and-white, with no tricky camera moves, no special effects; sort of "minimalist realism." Mr. Pawlikowski has made one of the finest European films (and one of the most insightful films about Europe, past and present) in recent memory.

Simon says Cold War (Zimna wojna) receives:

Saturday, 26 January 2019

'A Tree in Water: My Journey From Aotearoa to The Great White North' Chapter 67.

The time for a protest was inevitable. It’s not exactly a pleasant photo subject. It’s made for more photo-journalistic efforts. But I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I wanted to use this to increase my chances of getting my foot in the journalism door. I don’t think that’s too unreasonable.

On the news, it comes as no surprise that the Ontario government, under Doug Ford, new OSAP plan includes eliminating the six-month grace period on loans, eliminating free tuition for low-income families, shifting from mostly grant-based to mostly loans-based funding, as well as forcing colleges and universities to absorb the loss of revenue from the ten percent tuition cut, inevitably making students pay the brunt of the cost. That’s a load of bullshit, if you ask me. I got wind of this when I was on Facebook minding my own business on the home page, and there I saw it and it got my attention.

But’s that obvious. It started at Yonge-Dundas Square, and I made it there an hour early. Most of the waiting time was spent at the SLC building at Ryerson University. Anyway, my presence was finally needed when the clock reached two o’clock. Fortunately, I noticed as soon as I reached the square that people with protest signs started to show up. The only problem that lay ahead was to take as many photos as possible without getting lost or trampled by the crowd, as well as not slipping on the snowy, icy ground. I just had to be very careful.

I took a lot of great shots. Then I spent a couple of minutes reviewing the images and deleting any less worthy ones. We made our way from Dundas Square, all the way through Dundas Street West and up University Avenue, to Queen’s Park, where the Ontario Legislative Building was located. There the protestors made sure their voices would be heard, by the Ontario government and Ford himself.

That was all I did for the day, other than getting tickets for Anime North immediately afterward, and attending a York University play in the evening. Might not seem like much, but it was a lot of stuff and work to do in one day, as least for me. Now it’s time to rest.