Early Man Review

I always talk about Studio Ghibli as the animation company that has the perfect track record of hit movies. Yet I neglect to ever speak on Aardman Animations, who has a flawless record of unique, stop-motion movies. From humble beginnings in the 1970s, Aardman has since created the popular character Morph, Wallace and Gromit, and numerous highly praised short films and feature films.

Aardman’s newest creation Early Man takes place during the Stone Age (and unbeknownst to our heroes, the dawn of the Bronze Age) and stars the likable cave man named Dug (Eddie Redmayne). And as luck would have it, Dug and his tribes’ peaceful existence becomes endangered when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) threatens to turn their home into a mine for precious metals. Unwilling to be conquered without a fight, Dug challenges his conquerors to a game of football, with it being winner-take-all for the valley.

Early Man was savagely unpredictable in its storytelling department, with a plot that didn’t really flow like most movies. The characters just moved from wacky scenarios to out of place sight gags (like a giant, prehistoric duck that tries to eat our protagonists) with little rhyme or reason. The random, impromptu feel of Early Man was critical in the films ability to engage the audience and make them laugh.

The funniest moments in the film involve the most absurd of situations imaginable. In one scene a hog gives a man a sensual bath massage; which goes on for so uncomfortably long that it became more comical as time wore on. In another equally amusing scene, a messenger pigeon begins to orally recite its message, while also giving dramatic gestures to the recipient. Again, so odd and unexpected that it’s comical.

Some of the verbal humor was so dated that I think the jokes actually came from the Stone Age. Most of the puns were simply dead on arrival and got a whopping zero laughs from the audience. This isn’t too surprising, since Aardman Animation’s most humorous content has always been the more physical/visual stuff. Just look at Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, one of the best kid’s films of 2015 and almost no dialogue.

Early Man was quick, unpredictable, and hilariously funny when it wasn’t attempting to use verbal jokes. Animated movies nowadays are quite foreseeable and unsurprising, so it’s nice to have Early Man come in and throw me through a loop. Aardman seamlessly maintains their creative and unique style of filmmaking with Early Man, and fans of their previous work will easily fall for the lovable characters and animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Black Panther Review

The latest Marvel flick to be deemed the “best Marvel movie ever” is none other than the prince (and now king) of Wakanda himself, the Black Panther.

Taking place after the events of Captain America: Civil War, prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to the African nation of Wakanda so that he may rule as the rightful king. However, when a new enemy with royal blood steps forth and threatens world domination, T’Challa’s ability to be the king and Black Panther will be tested. Going to great lengths to maintain the throne and keep his people safe.

Hands down the best aspect of Black Panther was the awe-inspiring aesthetic appeal. The imagery was rich in African heritage and mystique, with a fascinating representation of tradition and tribalism around every corner. It isn’t often you see this kind of African style in film, and it’s worked in very well in Black Panther. Every scene involving some sort of ritual or custom fully engrossed me into the film, more so than I could’ve ever imagined.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa (and the Black Panther) was incredibly charismatic without ever trying to do so. His character was so fleshed out and three-dimensional that the audience understood his tribulations and internal conflicts. And these features were only elevated by Boseman’s emotional and memorable performance, which I would put right up there with the other great Marvel actors/actresses.

Unfortunately, all the messages about race and discrimination were so half-baked and paper-thin that I’m confused as to what the fuss is about. It felt to me like a typical Hollywood move, to not even scratch the surface of a serious issue then run around screaming how they’ve helped to change the course of history. There are plenty of films and television shows today diving deeper into topics of race relations than Black Panther ever tread, and in much more clever and insightful ways. This was more like a studio bigwig went through a social justice checklist and less like an earnest, genuine look at complex issues. I’m not blind to the fact that Black Panther is the first of its kind in many unique ways and should be respected as such. But again, I’m frankly surprised that its being heralded as if it were Do the Right Thing, when a lot of the content begs to differ.

When the focus was on Africa, Wakanda, and Boseman, the film thrives in its own unique environment it builds. But when Black Panther remembers it needs to be a superhero movie and mass-appealing blockbuster first, that is when its charm weakens.

Most characters were developed and well-integrated, a few (mostly the villains) were predictable and had muddled motives. Many action scenes were fun and intense, but at the same time completely pointless for the story they were telling (like the obligatory gigantic battle at the climax).

Judging by the overwhelming praise the film has received, I’m currently one of the few not so satisfied moviegoers, even though I sincerely enjoyed many parts of Black Panther. Ultimately for me the weaknesses in the storytelling overtook some of the better aesthetic moments.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint

Peter Rabbit Review

When I heard Sony was making a live-action/CGI animated film of Peter Rabbit (based on the stories by Beatrix Potter), my mind immediately went to Sony Animation’s The Smurfs. A film so dull and manipulative that it practically invented the term “corporate pandering”, I was sure Peter Rabbit would suffer the same fate.

Luckily, in some ways I was wrong. Meaning that Peter Rabbit had some redeeming qualities, which are sadly overshadowed by an overall lackluster picture.

Peter Rabbit stars the adorable rabbit himself Peter (voiced by James Corden), who loves sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s (Sam Neill) vegetable garden. After Mr. McGregor’s sudden passing, his home is left to one of his distant relatives named Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), who plans to sell the house and make a pretty penny in the process. When Thomas discovers the rabbits intruding on his newly acquired property, he decides to take “pest” control into his own hands as an epic battle ensues between the two rivaling parties: man vs. rabbits.

The most insufferable part of Peter Rabbit was of course Peter Rabbit himself, along with the rest of his CGI entourage. All the humor and high jinks surrounding their characters have been done to death, and subsequently they get very few laughs. Most jokes went on for a painful amount of time, and sometimes I had to stop watching altogether (especially when the rabbits just kept talking).

The funniest moments were the oddly dark scenes, like when Mr. McGregor has a heart attack and dies out of nowhere. Not only are the animals overjoyed by his death, they celebrate by partying and trashing his house. While I found these scenes to be rather hilarious, when taking into account the target audience of Peter Rabbit (that being young children) it’s distastefully out of place.

The messages and morals are so on the nose that it treats kids as if they haven’t the least bit of intelligence. And because these messages are so at odds with the story and the characters’ behaviors, Peter Rabbit ends up being a pretty pointless endeavor. The film gives the vague appearance that Peter and Thomas learn something at the end, but their characters make no real change. In fact, both characters seemingly learned these lessons at multiple points in the movie yet resort back to their immature selves just moments later.

As far as creative, funny content goes, Peter Rabbit has more to offer adults in the first thirty minutes than it does kids for the whole movie. Still, this isn’t to say adults will like this, as the vast majority is quite boring. Storywise, this is your typical half-hearted family comedy. Some attempts at real jokes and emotional moments are made, other times it all feels dull, disingenuous, and too cynical. Domhnall Gleeson gives his very best performance, and a lot of times his talent for acting works past the mediocrities, rising to levels of complete insanity. Other than that, everyone (including our furry stars) is bland and uninteresting. And seeing that Paddington 2 came out just a few months prior, there really is no excuse for such a boring story and bland personalities.

My disdain for a product like Peter Rabbit may sound trivial, but I strongly feel that movies should treat children with more respect. Attempting to inspire and challenge kids, as well as make them use their brains. Movies shouldn’t manipulate kids and subject them to apathetic corporate hullabaloo.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

The Post Review

What I assume will be my last belated review from 2017, The Post was one of the more politically motivated (and dividing) films of the year.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, The Post focuses on American newspaper publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep), who recently inherited ownership of the Washington Post. Graham works feverishly with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in an attempt to play catch-up with The New York Times, who just exposed a massive government secret spanning decades.  This secret, known today as the Pentagon Papers, detailed the United States’ military interests in Vietnam, even years before military action took place. This included major lies from four U.S. presidents, government deception of the public, and even the acknowledgement that we might not win the war if the U.S. decided to fight.

So, when the Nixon administration tried to silence the news media by making the papers illegal to publish, The Washington Post throws it all on the line for their right to bring this information to the public eye.

When it comes to The Posts storytelling capabilities, they happened to be both powerful and conventional. Spielberg has this natural style of filmmaking that’s always so engaging, with the ability to suck viewers into the most mundane of scenes. That ability translates over nicely in The Post, which stays interesting, topical, and compelled. Scenes are shot with some variety, and the actors were motivated to give their all.

That being said, The Post doesn’t really throw anything new into the mix. We’ve seen biographical dramas on journalism before, and The Post didn’t really stand out as being revolutionary (as many critics would have you believe). How The Post stands the test of time has of course yet to be seen. It’s messages and themes about the government attempting to censor and control the media are undeniably topical, for the moment. But its methods are so similar to films like Spotlight that I’m skeptical how well it will age. A lot of The Post’s critical praise has come from its relevancy to the current U.S. administration, but without that context I’m afraid that it won’t stand as strong.

At the very least, The Post is a well-directed and intriguing drama, with passionate performances from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Beyond this, I’m not sure if The Post is  award-winning material.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

I, Tonya Review

There were many films of 2017 that I regrettably almost missed the first time around. Whether it be theatrical release delays or my inability to get out to the movies, I just about skipped out on some excellent film-going experiences. Including such wonderful hits as The Shape of Water, The Post, and the film I’m reviewing today, I, Tonya. 

I, Tonya captures the rise and fall of the Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding, from her rough early years growing up to her participation in the 1992 and 1994 Olympics. Also, to receive a lot of focus was the controversial assault on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan during the Olympics, and the unknown level of involvement Harding had in the attack. From here we see not only the aftermath of the attack, but how many of Tonya’s life events led up to that controversy.

The story takes a rather interesting mockumentary perspective in its storytelling, mixing the events of the past with fictional interviews of the present, all while frequently breaking the fourth wall. Through this, the audience is given great commentary (and surprisingly, plenty of laughs) on the contentious assault of Nancy Kerrigan, an incident that many are still confused on.

Margot Robbie as Tonya and Allison Janney as her mother LaVona were two noteworthy performances among a plethora of convincing, superb acting. What I particularly liked about Robbie’s performance was how very real she portrayed Tonya. The viewer felt every painful moment she experienced, and I’m sure her very real-life conflicts resonated with a lot of people.

I, Tonya has this crude, dark sense of humor that it wears like a badge in many situations. Even when discussing sensitive topics and ideas, the tone remained oddly tongue-in-cheek. Themes of domestic violence, abusive parenting, and working-class woes are treated with witty tastelessness. It’s this kind of macabre humor that I appreciate seeing, specifically because it’s so difficult to do well without coming off as repugnant. Films like The Belko Experiment try to capture it and fail miserably. Films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and A Clockwork Orange utilize it effectively and in return get a great payoff.

The conclusion of I, Tonya was admittedly the most disappointing part of the film for me, mostly because it takes such an apologetic tone towards Harding. A film that, up until then, seemed to relish in its own impartiality towards the events and people depicted, ended up resorting to Hollywood schmaltz. By this point in I, Tonya the audience already felt sympathy towards Harding and her unfortunate position, so there was no point in manipulating the audience into believing she was some persecuted angel.  In fact, portraying her in this light was a complete one-eighty from how they’d been portraying her previously.

At the heart of it all, Tonya Harding was an unconventional individual, and far from the American sweetheart people and judges wanted her to be. I, Tonya accurately depicts her for who she is, a human. Not only in her faults, but her tragically flawed upbringing that is a reality for so many people.

Throwing in plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor and terrific portrayals, I, Tonya turned out to be one of the best biopics of 2017 and is definitely worth a watch.

The Verdict: A-

-Zachary Flint

The Shape of Water Review

From the talented mind of Guillermo del Toro comes one of the most highly praised and cherished films of 2017, The Shape of Water.

Taking place during the early Cold War years, the story focuses on a mute U.S. government lab employee named Elisa (played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins). Living a quite isolated life, things change forever when she discovers a classified government secret in the lab — a scaled, one-of-a-kind creature taken from South America. Elisa quickly develops a romantic bond with the Amphibian Man (as I will refer to him as), and even hatches a daring plan to rescue him from the facility. What follows is an exciting love story that’s both quaint and dramatic.

The Shape of Water had a nice 1950’s era look, with a distinct, Guillermo del Toro style to it. Set designs (like the chambers of the Amphibian Man) and their lighting were reminiscent of del Toro’s visually artistic work on Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Even the Amphibian Man himself was aesthetically similar to monsters I saw in Hellboy, only with a Creature from the Black Lagoon look.

And like many of del Toro’s other films, the fantasy elements fused seamlessly with the more grounded plot points. Some scenes would be engulfed in high-stakes tension between Elisa and the intimidating Colonel Strickland (played fiercely by Michael Shannon). Other contrasting moments would have this lighthearted, fantasy whimsy to them, mostly pertaining to the romantic bond between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. This romance, which is the cornerstone of the whole film, unfolds in the most magical and marvelous of ways. And the creature-human gap between the two doesn’t come off as jarring as one would think.

The Shape of Water was a beautifully romantic story that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish. The love story of Elisa and the Amphibian Man was more emotionally moving and heartfelt than any love story I’ve seen in a long time. The performances were incredibly convincing, the cinematography distinct, and the story both traditional and novel at the same time. All the pieces fell perfectly together for The Shape of Water, making it an intense and exciting fairy tale of the highest quality, and one that I plan on returning to for future viewings.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Hostiles Review

One genre I’ve lacked in reviewing on my blog is the almighty Western flick. I blame this on the lack of widely released Western films being made. Other than The Magnificent Seven, which felt more like a comedy than a traditional Western, there haven’t been many serious mainstream Western movies in recent years. With the new release of Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, Western fans can finally quench their thirst.

Christian Bale stars as the battle-hardened Joseph J. Blocker, a U.S. Calvary officer tasked with returning a Cheyenne family to their home in Montana. Along the way, Blocker and company face deadly Comanche warriors, merciless fur traders, and other roadblocks that threaten to end their important mission. Full of great performances and visuals, Hostiles deals with themes and revelations about death and forgiveness.

I was conflicted throughout the first half of Hostiles, mostly in contemplation over what point the film was trying to get across. It dabbled in many different themes and ideas, teetering between kind of clever and been there done that. It wasn’t until about halfway through the film that it became clear to me it was saying. And it carried a message I appreciated quite a lot.

Hostiles is all about death, what it means to be a soldier (or in some cases, a killer), and what it means to forgive and be forgiven. In this sense I liken Hostiles to one of the best modern Western films around, Unforgiven.

While our protagonists first appear to be the typical machismo Western heroes, deep down their actions have left them scarred and frail. Some soldiers even claiming that they simply “don’t feel anything” anymore. They feel sorrow for their crimes, and in many ways, attempt to redeem themselves through their actions.

Also, on a more subtle note, the protagonists must face a changing world. What was once considered permissible (like the extreme maltreatment of Indian tribes) is now being condemned, forcing them to come to terms with their wrongdoings. Even the main plot of the film is something that all the soldiers object to in the beginning, due to their complex and violent history with Indian tribes.

Hostiles definitely has its dry spells. And when moments got slow, I really felt the film drag. Most of this was due to the film’s rough start, where the narrative was pretty scattershot and had no direction or purpose.

The excellent cinematography and powerful performances (particularly from Bale) made Hostiles a great throwback to a genre that doesn’t get much mainstream love anymore. The film wanders off course from time to time (especially in the first half), but eventually it comes around to a highly satisfying climax and conclusion that Western fans are sure to like.

The Verdict: B+

-Zachary Flint