Monday, 28 December 2020

Film Review: "Nomadland" (2020).

From the director of The Rider comes Nomadland. This drama film adapted and directed by Chloé Zhao and based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. Following the economic collapse of a company town in rural Nevada, Fern packs her van and sets off on the road exploring a life outside of conventional society as a modern-day nomad.

In March 2018, Frances McDormand and Zhao met a day before the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards, and instantly wanted to do a film together. By Fall, Frances McDormand, David Strathairn and Peter Spears, as well as real-life nomads Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells, were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and lasted over four months, with Zhao splitting time between set and pre-production for Eternals (2021). Filming took place in seven states during four months, during which McDormand actually performed several of the jobs done by people who do nomadic work and inspired the book, such as harvesting beets and packaging Amazon orders with the CamperForce program. McDormand, Zhao, and other crew members lived out of vans over the course of production. McDormand blended into the nomadic community so well that one of the local Targets offered her an application for a job. Frances' experience of living in a van took four to five months, covering seven states. She adopted a lifestyle of being constantly on the move to make the movie seem more authentic, rather than just acting the scenes. The film's initial release date before it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film stars McDormand, Strathairn and Spears. McDormand, no matter the closeness to her own cinematic equivalent, brings this yearning, good-hearted soul to life with a virtuosic application of body, mind, and heart.

Zhao's Nomadland serves as a testament for why making the extra effort to tell underrepresented stories matters. Throughout all of the film, Zhao maintains her tone and, to a lesser extent, her pace, seeing her work more as a poem than as a narrative picture. The craft evidenced by Zhao is great when she improvises and adapts to the actors and situation, but less so when she has complete control. The piece works because Zhao has the open eyes and big heart of a humanitarian, and she refuses to ignore inspiration in any form when it strikes her squarely between the eyes. The sort of deep, meaningful film that reminds us why we are so lucky the independent film industry exists in the first place. It reminds us of the dignifying power of work and purpose in human existence, even as it ponders the meaning of life when these things are taken away. A delicate and tremulous thing, at once confident and gentle, lyrically composed yet as tragic as the American Dream ideal it so carefully deconstructs. Zhao's lyricism, brought to shimmering life by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, turns what could have easily been a leaden docudrama into a work of astonishing beauty.

Simon says Nomadland receives:

Also, see my review for The Rider.

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Film Review: "The Croods: A New Age" (2020).

"The future ain't what it used to be" in The Croods: A New Age. This computer-animated adventure comedy film directed by Joel Crawford, his feature directorial debut, written by Dan and Kevin Hageman, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, and produced by DreamWorks Animation. It is the sequel to The Croods (2013). Searching for a safer habitat, the prehistoric Crood family discovers an idyllic, walled-in paradise that meets all of its needs. Unfortunately, they must also learn to live with the Bettermans -- a family that's a couple of steps above the Croods on the evolutionary ladder. As tensions between the new neighbors start to rise, a new threat soon propels both clans on an epic adventure that forces them to embrace their differences, draw strength from one another, and survive together.

In April 2013, DreamWorks Animation announced the sequel with original directors and writers Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco set to return to helm the sequel. In mid June 2014, it was announced the film was set for a November 3, 2017 release date. However, in late August, the film was delayed to December 22, 2017. However, in early August 2016, nearing Comcast's impending acquisition of DreamWorks Animation, 20th Century Fox removed the film from the release schedule. The film would be instead released by Universal Pictures sometime in 2018. Later that month, it was reported that Kevin and Dan Hageman were hired to rewrite the script. In early November, DreamWorks announced that production for the sequel was cancelled. However, in September 2017, DreamWorks and Universal revealed that the film was back in production with a September 18, 2020 release date. It was also revealed that both DeMicco and Sanders would not be returning. In October 2017, it was reported that Crawford would replace both DeMicco and Sanders as director. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, production of the film shifted to employees working at home.

The film features the voice talents of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, repairing their roles, with Peter Dinklage, Leslie Mann and Kelly Marie Tran. The original cast are all very good in their respective roles, but it is the supporting characters that really make the film a cut above most family fare. The characters are charming, the animation really is spectacularly smooth and expressive, and the Looney Tunes-style humor and pop-culture in-jokes are as inventive and hilarious as before.

The film actually tells a creative story and doesn't just make fun of the fairytale genre but subverts it in some clever ways. The animation by which it stands or falls is as brilliant as ever and, though it wouldn't really be right to call it totally anti-Disney, it certainly trumps that institution for sharpness of focus, notably as far as the screenplay is concerned. Don't get me wrong. I'm not sulking. I liked the film. Honest. Kids will like the film. Most mums and dads will like the film. My problem is this: I didn't love it the way I loved the first one.

Simon says The Croods: A New Age receives:

Also, see my review for The Croods and Trolls World Tour.

Film Review: "Soul" (2020).

"Everybody has a soul. Joe Gardner is about to find his" in Soul. This computer-animated comedy-drama film co-directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers, written by Doctor, Powers and Mike Jones, and produced by Pixar Animation Studios. A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

In January 2016, a new film was announced with Doctor as director. In June 2018, it was announced that Docter was planning to complete his film despite being appointed Chief Creative Officer at Pixar after John Lasseter's departure. In June 2019, Pixar announced the film's title as Soul with a synopsis released on Twitter. In late August, during the 2019 D23 Expo, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross were announced to be composing the film's score, while Jon Batiste was announced to be writing jazz songs for the film. The film was originally set for a June 19, 2020 release date. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was delayed to November 20, 2020. Ultimately, in early October 2020, the film's theatrical release was cancelled in favour of releasing the film on Disney+. However, unlike Mulan (2020), the film will not be a "premiere access" for an additional price, but will be free for all subscribers.

The film features the voice talents of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Esther Chae, Sakina Jaffrey, Cathy Cavadini, and John Ratzenberger. The usual brilliant animation by Pixar and great voice acting by the likes of Foxx, Fey, and Bassett just make this unusual film that much better.

An ingenious, moving story about the phenomenon of life and death, as well as the human condition, that delights older and younger viewers alike. The film is as funny as it is emotional. It's a rare comedy that can bring both tears of sadness and joy to your eyes, sometimes within seconds of each other. Even after having a narrative so magnified that it focuses on the human experience of one person, it remains universal and penetrating. Great filmmaking is empathetic. It lets us experience the world through the eyes of someone else, and connects a specific experience to a larger, shared whole. The film is great filmmaking. The film displays a keen understanding of childhood and its most precious joys and deepest fears, synthesizing them into something that is instantly relatable to children and adults alike. The film's philosophical script is matched both by its visual splendor, often invoking the spirit of Miyazaki, and its humanist reach, which extends to both family and friend alike. The film lovingly explores the complex interplay of life and death with Pixar's apparently endless talent for innovation and visual design. Overall, Disney Pixar does an amazing job on digging into people's feelings and the importance of letting people know how to live.

Simon says Soul receives:

Also, see my reviews for Inside Out and Onward.

Film Review: "We Can Be Heroes" (2020).

"Power comes in all sizes" in We Can Be Heroes. This superhero film written and directed by Robert Rodriguez. The film serves as a stand-alone sequel to The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D (2005). When alien invaders kidnap Earth's superheroes, their kids are whisked away to a government safe house. But whip-smart tween Missy Moreno will stop at nothing to rescue her superhero dad, Marcus Moreno. Missy teams up with the rest of the superkids to escape their mysterious government babysitter, Ms. Granada. If they're going to save their parents, they'll have to work together by using their individual powers - from elasticity to time control to predicting the future - and form an out-of-this-world team.

By August 2019, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Pedro Pascal, Adriana Barraza, Boyd Holbrook, Christian Slater, Sung Kang, Christopher McDonald, Taylor Dooley, YaYa Gosselin, Lyon Daniels, Andy Walken, Hala Finley, Lotus Blossom, Dylan Henry Lau, Isaiah Russell-Bailey, Akira Akbar, Nathan Blair and Vivien Blair were cast in a superhero film written and to be directed by Rodriguez and produced by Netflix. At the same time, principal photography commenced and filming took place at Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios in Austin, Texas. The film was originally scheduled for a January 1, 2021 release date before it was pushed forward to December 25, 2020.

The film stars Chopra Jonas, Pascal, Barraza, Holbrook, Slater, Kang, McDonald, Dooley, Gosselin, Daniels, Walken, Finley, Blossom, Lau, Russell-Bailey, Akbar, Nathan and Vivien Blair. Despite the strong cast, the film is mind-numbingly boring and woodenly acted. Rodriguez was subjecting everyone to their own expensive home movie.

A fun Christmas film for grade school kids, it avoids the subtle meanness and double entendres that filmmakers sometimes insert into films geared to children. Script-wise, the film dutifully harps on the importance of believing in oneself, but it is painfully repetitive and something that is proclaimed more than demonstrated. The film will entertain the youngest viewers but likely erode the good will Rodriguez has built up in the family film genre. The film feels like a whimsical afterthought, a colourful kid-centric lark filled with admirable ideas and nothing to keep older viewers entertained. The film, while noble, imaginative and a huge valentine to family involvement, unfortunately just isn't all that interesting. Sounds like a grand old time -- a hip fusion of Nickelodeon attitude, the wittier children's books, and retro kitsch culture. In fact, it's a nearly unwatchable combination of the worst elements of all three. Youngsters will enjoy it even as they more worldly and cynical elders - anyone over the age of ten - will wish they were someplace else. It's hard to argue that a film won't capture a kid's imagination when it comes from a kid's imagination. But I will argue nonetheless. Looks and sounds and feels as if it were made by kids who'd broken into Dad's toolshed and borrowed his filmmaking toys. Okay, it's simplistic Saturday-morning-cartoon stuff, but it's so cool looking that the younger set will be taken in. Pure Rodriguez creativity, bordering on insanity, but definitely something different. Give him credit. Rodriguez sure knows how to switch gears.

Simon says We Can Be Heroes receives:

Also, see my review for Alita: Battle Angel.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Film Review: "Wonder Woman 1984" (2020).

"A new era of wonder begins" in Wonder Woman 1984. This superhero film directed by Patty Jenkins, written by Jenkins, Geoff Johns and David Callaham, and based on the DC Comics character created by William Moulton Marston. It is the sequel to 2017's Wonder Woman and the ninth installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Diana Prince lives quietly among mortals in the vibrant, sleek 1980s -- an era of excess driven by the pursuit of having it all. Though she's come into her full powers, she maintains a low profile by curating ancient artifacts, and only performing heroic acts incognito. But soon, Diana will have to muster all of her strength, wisdom and courage as she squares off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah, a villainess who possesses superhuman strength and agility.

In June 2017, after the release of Wonder Woman, during an interview with Variety, Johns revealed that he and Jenkins had started writing the treatment for a sequel and that he had a "cool idea for the second one". In late July, at San Diego Comic-Con, the studio officially announced a sequel, entitled Wonder Woman 2, would be produced. By mid September 2017, it was officially confirmed that Jenkins would be directing the sequel. Additionally, it was reported that Callaham was hired to co-write the script with Jenkins and Johns, who had already been working on it for several months. In mid June, the title of the film was announced to be Wonder Woman 1984. By mid June, Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, and Connie Nielsen would reprise their roles, with Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal would round out the cast as newcomers. At the same time, with a budget of $200 million, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late December under the working title Magic Hour. Filming took place in Alexandria, Virginia; Washington, District of Columbia; Canary Islands, Spain; Almería, Andalucía, Spain; and Warner Bros. Studios, in Leavesden, England. The film was shot with IMAX film cameras for select action sequences. In August, Hans Zimmer was announced as the film's composer, replacing Rupert Gregson-Williams, who scored the first film. The film was originally set for a December 13, 2019 release date, before being moved up to a November 8, 2019 release date, then it was delayed to June 5, 2020. In late March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was again delayed to August 14, 2020. In June, the film was once again delayed to October 2, 2020, before it was finally delayed to December 25, 2020.

The film stars Gadot, Pine, Wiig, Pascal, Wright, and Nielsen. Mostly this film is great because of the journey of the characters, especially Wonder Woman, and the strong performances. Substantial credit should also go to Wiig's casually menacing Cheetah, who transcends her questionable costume and make-up to appear a convincing threat.

It is easily the best spectacle movie of the season. On some levels soars above its predecessor with a more personal story; credible, menacing villains and an impeccable cast.

Simon says Wonder Woman 1984 receives:

Also, see my reviews for Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Film Review: "The Witches" (2020).

"This Halloween, bring the big screen home" with The Witches. This dark fantasy comedy film directed by Robert Zemeckis, adapted by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, and based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. The film tells the darkly humorous and heartwarming tale of a young orphaned boy who, in late 1967, goes to live with his loving Grandma in the rural Alabama town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks him away to a seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world's Grand High Witch has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe-undercover-to carry out her nefarious plans.

In December 2008, talks of a new adaptation of Dahl's novel began when del Toro expressed interest in writing and directing a stop motion film. No further developments on the potential project emerged until ten years later in June 2018, when Zemeckis was hired to direct and co-write. Del Toro would produce, alongside Zemeckis and Alfonso Cuarón. In January 2019, Anne Hathaway was cast in the role of Grand High Witch. Claire Foy, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Rachel Weisz, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kristin Kreuk, Salma Hayek, Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, Kate Beckinsale, Charlotte Riley, Natalie Dormer and Jennifer Lopez were all considered as possible candidates for the role. In February, Octavia Spencer was cast as Grandma. By early May, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, and Chris Rock rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late June. Filming took place in Warner Brothers Studios, Leavesden and Surrey, England; Alabama and Georgia. In July 2019, Zemeckis's regular collaborator, Alan Silvestri, was hired to score the film. The film was originally scheduled for October 16, 2020 release date. However, in late October, Warner Bros. moved up the release of the film by a week. However, in early June 2020, Warner Bros. announced that they pulled the film off the 2020 schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, the film was digitally released in the United States on October 22, 2020 via HBO Max, with an October 28 2020 release date for international markets.

The film stars Hathaway, Spencer, Tucci, Chenoweth, Bruno, and Rock. The cast hits the sweet spot despite Hathaway's 'interesting' take on the Grand High Witch.

Witty, wonderful and wildly imaginative, Zemeckis's first proper 'family movie' since A Christmas Carol delivers a fun scare that'll last for days. Zemeckis commands his environments with such exacting precision that one can't help but lose oneself in the intricate layers of sets and costumes. Though the idea of a Zemeckis / Dahl collaboration would seem a perfect aligning of sensibilities, it becomes incredibly apparent that the director's pretenses get in the way of Dahl's simpler intent. Of the somewhat overlong a hundred-and-six minute running time, there's an entertaining ninety minutes of eye candy with a dark, daring center.

Simon says The Witches receives:

Also, see my review for Welcome to Marwen.

Monday, 7 December 2020

Film Review: "The Mystery of D.B. Cooper" (2020).

"The crime that spawned an obsession." This is The Mystery of D.B. Cooper. This documentary film written and directed by John Dower. The film brings to life the stories of four individuals fervently believed by their family and friends to be "D.B. Cooper", the mystery man who hijacked a 727 flying out of Seattle, traded the passengers’ lives for $200,000 and four parachutes, lept from the jet over some of Washington state’s roughest terrain, and was never heard from again. Almost fifty years later, the case continues to confound the FBI and inspire wild speculation as it remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in United States history.‌ The film draws from a combination of recreated and archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews with those most connected to the infamous case and its likeliest culprit, and explores how the heist inspired copycat hijackings around the world and elevated Cooper to "legend" status before his plane even touched back down on land.

Despite an extensive manhunt and protracted FBI investigation, the perpetrator has never been located or identified. It remains the only unsolved case of air piracy in commercial aviation history. Many FBI agents are of the opinion that Cooper probably did not survive his high-risk jump, but his remains have never been recovered. The FBI maintained an active investigation for forty-nine years after the hijacking. Despite a case file that has grown to over sixty volumes over that period, no definitive conclusions have been reached regarding Cooper's true identity or whereabouts. Numerous theories of widely varying plausibility have been proposed over the years by investigators, reporters, and amateur enthusiasts. A young boy discovered a small cache of banknotes from the ransom along the banks of the Columbia River in February 1980. The find triggered renewed interest but ultimately only deepened the mystery, and the great majority of the ransom remains unrecovered. In July 2016, the FBI officially suspended active investigation of the case, but the agency continues to request that any physical evidence that might emerge related to the parachutes or the ransom money be submitted for analysis.

The film might not be a perfect documentary, but it gets us inside the hijacking, by hook or crook, and lets us examine what dark secrets they are hiding. While the film provides a very entertaining tour of some of the questions that swirl around D.B. Cooper, viewers who've followed the story through the decades will find little that's new or unexpected. There is little factual revelation here but by the powerful conclusion, you do feel that Dower has uncovered something of the dark side of the nation's obsession. The lack of answers here is frustrating but understandable, and the journey to find them provides an entertaining look at the nature of mysteries and legends. However, the film is an illuminating insight into the hijacking, the man and the aftermath and subsequent birth of the Robin Hood-like legend, but one that must settle for walking the perimeter fence, looking in.

Simon says The Mystery of D.B. Cooper receives:

Also, see my review for My Scientology Movie.