Voices of Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Courtney B. Vance, Koyu Rankin, Bob Balaban, Liev Schreiber, Anjelica Huston, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Kunichi Nomura, Harvey Keitel, F. Murray Abraham, Scarlet Johansson, Ken Watanabe
Set ahead in dystopian Japan where dogs are reviled for carrying an incurable disease, Mayor Kobayashi signs a decree that isolates the canine population to trash island. Once there, Chief (Cranston), a stray, and four other alpha dogs spend their days scavenging for food, before the arrival of a human boy searching for his missing dog gives them new purpose. It’s a unique and tremendous vision Anderson and his team of animators create, but, like all of his films, I simply felt no connection to the material. His distinctive style keeps me at a distance. I find Isle of Dogs more impressive than moving, more amusing than funny, and not endearing enough to be memorable. The voice work, the character design, and fluid, imaginative camera movement are extraordinary, but Anderson rarely reaches for more, and there is more to film than technical brilliance. Idiosyncratic. Striking. Stiff.
Voices of John Goodman, Walter Cronkite, Julia Child, Rhea Perlman, Jay Leno, Kenneth Mars, Felicity Kendal, Charles Fleischer, Martin Short
Rex (Goodman), once a vicious predator, transformed by a scientist’s invention into a kind dinosaur, travels to the 20th century to fulfill children’s dreams. He joins a group of transformed dinosaurs meant to visit the Museum of Natural History, but they get sidetracked after meeting two runaways who get locked into a dangerous contract at a spooky circus. There’s plenty here for children to enjoy, but We’re Back lacks the intelligence, depth, and artistry of the best animation, many examples of which were coming out at about the same time as this film (The Lion King in 1994 and Aladdin in 1992). Pedestrian. Harmless. Childish.
Starring Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Ann Moss, Alfred Molina, Leslie Caron, John Wood
Vianne Rocher (Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk, who wander across Europe, open a chocolaterie in a heavily religious and traditional town in France, 1959. The town is lorded over by Comte de Reynaud (Molina) who quickly brands Vianne and her chocolate as sinful ostracizing her from the rest of the villagers. Gradually the chocolate and her kindness win them over. Criticized for being shallow, or condescendingly referred to as a pleasant trifle, I think the film succeeds in its own brand of magic realism, and deserves more credit. The cast is fantastic, led by Binoche whose smile makes her turning an entire town upside down believable, and Molina, working with a difficult, thankless role as the town bully, manages to give his character enough depth for us to actually care about his transformation. Lovely. Light. Charming.
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, Dominic Monaghan, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Billy Boyd, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Bernard King, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean
Final chapter in Peter Jackson’s landmark fantasy series finds Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) following Smeagol (Serkis) into a trap on their quest to rid Middle Earth of the One Ring once and for all. Sauron, having suffered a defeat at the end of Two Towers, launches an all out assault on humans in this installment. Aragorn (Mortensen), knows that Gondor, his kingdom, will not stand a chance unless he can muster reinforcements, so he looks for aid from the Dead Men of Dunharrow (an army of undead warriors) with the help of Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Gandalf and Pippin fight to defend Gondor stronghold Minas Tirith from a devastating siege from Sauron. Wholly gratifying end to the Lord of the Rings tale, with multiple absorbing story lines, dozens of indelible characters, and a vast array of technical skill. One of the great visual spectacles of modern cinema. Surprisingly, I found The Two Towers superior to The Returns of the King, which ends on at least thirty minutes of unnecessary epilogue. The battle of Minis Tirith also ends frustratingly with the Dead Men of Dunharrow finishing the battle within minutes. While not quite “deus ex machina,” because there is plenty of build up towards it, the conclusion of the battle did make the preceding hour seem like a waste. And then there’s the eagles. They are “deus ex machina,” and a bewildering turn in the plot. Still a great film. Unforgettable. Indulgent. Satisfying.
Voices of Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ruby Barnhill, Lynda Baron, Ewen Bremner, Morwenna Banks
A perennially bored young girl with flowing red hair, Mary (Barnhill), stumbles upon a rare and valuable flower known as a “fly-by-night,” which gives magical ability to the one who finds it, though for a limited amount of time. Next thing she knows, Mary’s being whisked away to a school for the magically gifted, where she discovers a dangerous plot led by the school’s headmistress, Madame Mumblechook (Winslet) and a professor, Doctor Dee (Broadbent). The story is unfulfilling, relying to heavily on the astonishing animation. As brilliant as that aspect of the film is, it serves what could possibly have been a short story stretched out to feature length. Beautiful. Disappointing. Passable.
Starring Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian Mckellen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Cate Blanchett, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, John Rhys-Davies
Continuation of Frodo Baggins’ (Wood) epic journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mordor, he’s led by the pitiable, treacherous Gollum (Serkis), and accompanied by brave, loyal Sam (Astin). The rest of Frodo’s former travel mates-Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom), and Gimli (Rhys-Davies)-search for Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), who’ve been captured by Orcs. This leads them to the center of Saruman’s plan to wipe out the remaining humans, and Aragorn fights back with the men of Rohan. The entire Lord of the Rings Saga is top of the line fantasy and world building. This second chapter brings in new great characters, and offers one of the best battle sequences in movie history: the final 40 minutes is dedicated to the extended fight at Helm’s Deep in the rain.
Starring Robert Englund, John Saxon, Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Amanda Wyss
Tina Gray (Wyss) dies a horrific, bloody death under bizarre circumstances one night, with all signs pointing to her boyfriend as the culprit. Only her best friend, Nancy (Langenkamp), believes he’s innocent. She’s having bizarre nightmares featuring a scarred man with razors on his hands, and knows her friend’s death and these dreams must be related. It would be silly to quibble about reason and logic in a surrealistic film invoking dream-logic. What works are the impressive visuals and effects which have aged well, and the horror icon, Freddy Kruger himself, who’s hilarious and terrifying in equal measure (his licking Nancy through the telephone is a prime example of this).