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Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Wind Rises (2014)

12 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Hayao Miyazaki’s swansong, this was said to be. Well, a few more years will change anyone’s mind, as he seemingly has another film in the works. But it wasn’t the first time he announced retirement anyway. Who am I to complain? If he wants to keep making films, let him.

“The Wind Rises” is one of Miyazaki’s best. It shows his strengths as a visionary animation director. It’s visually stunning, has a beautifully told story, and is just an overall fantastic film. It’s also the first time Miyazaki tackled a “true story,” so that’s just as impressive. It’s a story loosely based on aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in WWII.

Thankfully, neither the character nor the film have a political agenda to get across. We know what damage and tragedies came from this creation, with many lives lost at the hands of the fighter pilots. But the character of Jiro didn’t know that would happen–he just felt happy to create something unique and special…it just turned out that “something” was a weapon.

The film doesn’t focus on the controversies that spawned from what this creation led to, but it doesn’t ignore them either. It instead focuses on the wonder and majesty of bring something new and innovative to life. That is what the film is about–it’s a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion.

And the way the film explores the creative process is imaginative. We see Jiro’s dreams and fantasies (in which he converses with his hero, a late Italian aviator voiced by Stanley Tucci), and we also see little things that inspire him, even something as small as a curvy fish bone that inspires his ultimate design.

But the film is also very downplayed. Characters talk about what should be done and what needs to be in order to make it work, in realistically effective fashion. The visually amazing sequences that Miyazaki does best are saved for dream/fantasy sequences, which was a wise decision for a film like this.

Oh, and here’s an interesting tidbit: human voices are largely used as sound effects, such as engine roars. I don’t know exactly why, but I think that’s ingenious.

So maybe Miyazaki hasn’t called it quits yet. Whatever his next film turns out to be, I’ll be interested in seeing it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

9 Nov

By Tanner Smith

In my Looking Back post on “How to Train Your Dragon”, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels. I didn’t even see the first movie again for nine years–but after I did, I knew I had to check out the next two chapters.

What makes a good sequel work? When it continues the story they started and ended with before. “How to Train Your Dragon” (spoilers, I guess) ended with a Viking village learning to unite with once-feared dragons after the odd man out–the scrawny, awkward Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel)–taught them the hard way that there are benefits to training them. Now, with “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” we have a promising setup: years later, the village is living in perfect harmony with dragons. Immediately, you know not everyone, especially those outside the village, is going to be fine with that, so there are possibilities with the concept.

And thankfully, there are many terrific ideas at work with this sequel. A madman wants to raise a dragon army. There are other Dragon Riders. Hiccup’s long-lost mother is involved here. And more.

How does the movie turn out? Well, not only did I like “How to Train Your Dragon 2” every bit as much as “How to Train Your Dragon,” but I think it’s even better.

Just when I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was DreamWorks’ most enjoyable franchise.

Director Dean DeBlois took inspiration from “The Empire Strikes Back,” one of the greatest sequels in film history. And it makes sense. That film also continued the original story with new ideas and twists to add further layers. That includes expanding the scope. What “The Empire Strikes Back” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” have in common is they both take the audience to different places and introduce us to new ideas that make us think about what was before and what could be in the future.

The characters from the first film are welcomed back, including the dragons which all have different expressions and identities. Hiccup is still a likable lead, and he’s given more room to grow in this environment he’s still trying to find his place within. Also, it’s amazing I haven’t gotten annoyed by Jay Baruchel’s gratingly nasal voice by now–guess it just adds to his character. I also like Astrid (America Ferrara), Hiccup’s fellow dragon-rider and girlfriend, better in this sequel–she has more to do and is stronger and more resourceful, but she doesn’t have to try so hard to prove it, which is a huge relief. Hiccup’s father Stoik (Gerard Butler) is still a stubborn ass but for different reasons this time–one of the strengths of both “Dragon” movies is that this brutish character isn’t a one-note angry Viking. Gobber the Belch (Craig Ferguson), Stoik’s close friend, is still effective comic-relief (though not much else). Oh, and we also have Hiccup and Astrid’s obnoxious friends from the first movie (voiced by Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig)…you know what? At least two of these four actually got some laughs out of me this time around! I especially like Ruffnut (Wiig) and her strange infatuation with one of the new antagonists: a Viking named Eret, “son of Eret” (Kit Harrington). (The moment she allows herself to be captured in slow-motion by Eret’s net and she drones, “Take me,” while holding her arms out–that had me laughing on the floor!)

The new characters include the aforementioned Eret, the dragon trapper that sets the plot in motion, as Hiccup and the dragon Toothless discover a plot to build a dragon army for the mysterious Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a ruthless warlord who wants destruction all around. But more importantly, we have Valka (Cate Blanchett), a dragon rescuer who has created a safe haven for dragons and lives solely amongst them. OH, and she’s also Hiccup’s mother!

So now, we have more room for backstory and character development to gain, more secrets to learn about with the dragons, and more of this visually impressive world we get to discover. This is just what was needed for a “How to Train Your Dragon” sequel and I absolutely loved it.

And the animation is of course spectacular. The flying scenes were a definite highlight in the first movie. They’re just as gorgeous if not even better in the second movie. I really wish I had seen this film on a big screen (and in 3-D) just to absorb the glory of Hiccup and Toothless flying in the wide-open sky. (This time, Hiccup has his own manmade wings to soar alongside Toothless rather than ride on top of Toothless.)

There are even some emotionally beautiful moments too, as you would expect with the reunion between Hiccup and Stoik and Valka. But something else happens late in the film (and I won’t give it away) that I didn’t think the film would tackle…and it did. Damn.

Even though I wasn’t sure about the idea of including a villain for the sequel when the first movie didn’t need one, and admittedly Drago’s motivation for conquering dragons is a little too obvious, I bought it because I thought this one was inevitable.

I made a mistake ignoring the “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels, and I will see the third movie, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” real soon. Will it be just as good as the other two, will it be even better, or will just be a serviceable sequel? I don’t know…but I’m going to find out!

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

How do you follow something as big and innovative as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in the MCU?

With “weird.” But, like, the good, awesome kind of “weird.” Why not hire Troma aficionado James Gunn to adapt the Marvel comic book about space aliens and a talking raccoon kicking ass across the galaxy?

Thus came “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the blockbuster hit no one expected. Even fans of the comics didn’t see this coming.

It is interesting to go to intergalactic fugitives battling through space after we’ve been used to superheroes and all-powerful gods. How are we supposed to take a talking raccoon and a walking tree (who only says three words: “I am Groot”) seriously? Well…we kind of do and kind of don’t at the same time. It’s complicated.

How complicated? Here’s how the movie opens–we get an emotionally heavy scene in which a little boy sees his mother die in a hospital bed right in front of him, before he’s abducted by aliens as he runs off in a sad fit. That’s the kind of WTF-ness we’re in for, so we just have to see what we get.

Cue the Marvel logo, followed by the caption “27 YEARS LATER” on a desert planet as a masked rogue kicks some small alien creatures while rocking out to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on his walkman and headphones, as the opening credits roll.

OK, movie. I’m hooked. Keep it coming.

Point is, “Guardians of the Galaxy” has a sense of humor and we’re not meant to take it that seriously. But at the same time, it embraces its weirdness, so we can identify as well.

So, we have our hero…hero…er…….considering the idiotic things Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) does in subsequent MCU entries, I don’t like to call him “our hero” anymore. Well, anyway, Peter was abducted by alien bounty/treasure hunters and has lived amongst them since then. But now he’s caught and imprisoned by the Nova Corps, along with other outlaws: a humanoid plant named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a lab-experiment swearing raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos who works as an assassin.

Oh, and this marks the first appearance of Thanos (not including his end-credits cameo in “The Avengers”), the all-powerful super-villain. Everyone saw this as a big deal; I didn’t. He doesn’t do much in this one, so we’re subjected one of his boring subjects, Ronan the Accuser (I had to look up his name; that’s how forgettable he is). And whenever he reappeared at a distance in future MCU movies, I wouldn’t give a damn who this guy was…until about four years later, of course, when he finally comes out to play in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

This was also the second appearance of the Infinity Stones (which were set up in “Thor: The Dark World”). Again, we had to wait to see what those were all about. (Or at least I had to–I don’t read comics.)

Anyway, our band of outlaws team up with Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a heavyset warrior who never lies or understands sarcasm, as they escape the prison and race to outrun Ronan before they decide to stand together and fight him.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” gave us something interesting and new while still staying true to the Marvel traditions, whereas “Guardians of the Galaxy” is…different. And we embraced it because of that. I did too. I thought it was fun and funny…I even called it the “Ghostbusters” of our generation. Do I still think that?

Well…maybe it’s not as great as I remember it being. Maybe I just appreciated it highly for being so different. But it is still a fun watch.

I may be in a minority opinion here, but the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t the most interesting heroes to me. I mean, their backstories are interesting, but they themselves…let me put it this way: it feels like they think they’re funnier than they really are. Peter’s a dork who’s too high on himself (and I’ll get to his “ego,” if you will, in future posts), which is funny sometimes when he practically whines to be taken seriously with his title of “Starlord”; Rocket laughs way too much at his own jokes; and soon, even when Drax lightens up, he becomes a little grating too. I like them better when they’re sincere goofballs rather than standup comedians who need to know when to move along with the next bit.

But something else that makes me hold back a little bit when looking back on this movie is that the pacing is a little confused. Some of the action goes on a little long, and the emotional moments (such as Groot lighting up a room) are a little short. I get that it’s a comedy first and foremost, but sometimes, especially for an MCU entry, it feels a little messy.

But I still enjoy “Guardians of the Galaxy” for individual scenes that make me laugh out loud, individual moments that get me excited, and simply the overall creative and giddy spirit of the thing. (And of course, the rousing vintage soundtrack helps a lot too.) I don’t love it as much as most MCU fans do, but I still had a good time revisiting it.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Rich Hill (2014)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Rich Hill is a documentary I saw at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival during its festival run. I remember immediately wanting to write about it upon seeing it, because it affected me that deeply.

It’s a documentary that gives us insight into the lives of three different teenage boys (Andrew, Harley, and Appachey) who live in the impoverished town of Rich Hill, Missouri. We meet their families, see what they do during the day, how they all live, and how they get by, so that we get a melancholy yet hopeful portrait of three boys with families who are not “white-trash,” as Andrew puts it, but “good people.” The one who gets the most sympathy from me is Harley, whose case is so sad that I really hope things are going well for him now.

More than five years later, I do still wonder where these kids are today. I hope wherever they are, they’re doing OK.

“Rich Hill” is now available for streaming.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

5 Nov

By Tanner Smith

After “The Avengers” became a humongous box-office hit, we knew we were going to see something great from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when?

Well, “Phase Two” begin in May 2013 with “Iron Man 3,” which was fun enough. But then came “Thor: The Dark World” in November 2013, which was dull as dishwater. We needed something that was going to be the next big thing for the MCU! And what’s this? A “Captain America” sequel? OK, let’s see what you got…

One viewing later, everyone was convinced, like “Holy cow this is what I didn’t know I was waiting for and it’s freaking amazing.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a film that dared to challenge its audience and it paid off in a major way. We still got the kick-ass action we go to these blockbusters for, and for that matter, we still got Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), among other MCU characters we recognize from other movies. But we got more than that. We got a more complicated story that asked questions we didn’t bother to think about in a movie like this. And as it progressed, it got even more interesting.

Before Steve Rogers was thawed out after being frozen for decades, he was led to believe that there was a simple war he was fighting: obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, no in-between. But now he’s in a world he’s trying to understand, not just because many people he knew are gone or even because of pop culture (about which he makes a list of things to keep track–I’ve paused that moment several times just to read the list), but because things are more complicated within who he thought he was fighting for and why. Now he can’t trust anybody except maybe Black Widow, and the two go on the run from HYDRA, the organization that’s taken over SHIELD, and their newest weapon, The Winter Soldier.

Suddenly, Captain America, the Boy Scout who always wanted to do good in his time, is suddenly the most interesting character in the MCU because he’s now in a time where he’s afraid he’s not doing as much good as he thought. You can tell that it’s eating him up inside that he just doesn’t know who to trust anymore and what’s worth fighting for. And then comes the reveal of the Winter Soldier…

I would issue a SPOILER ALERT but I think we all know by now that the Winter Soldier is Bucky (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s buddy from long, long ago, now brainwashed by HYDRA. It becomes a plot point in “Captain America: Civil War,” which everyone saw, so let’s move on and say this was another big strength in the story development for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” It adds to Steve’s confusion about what he needs to do. What is his purpose now? To save Bucky? To stop him? Who else is he supposed to be fighting against/alongside? The moment Bucky’s reveal is brought onto us, everyone knew this movie was what we as comic-book movie fans needed. It’s great, and where it goes from there is not “predictable” so much as “inevitable.”

Every twist and turn “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” throws at us feels important and we’re completely invested in what’s going to happen next.

Even a cameo by the late Garry Shandling can feel like a big deal. (“Hail HYDRA.”)

This was the first MCU entry for the Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe Russo), who would later give us more of the best MCU movies (“Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Avengers: Endgame”). They know we need something new to add to the familiar stuff we want to see, and this would only be the beginning of their impressive MCU track record. (Hah! I use the mild word of “impressive” when they’re responsible for this year’s highest-grossing film!! But you get what I mean.)

For one thing, they didn’t use much CGI. It is there, but it’s not what’s focused upon. It was surprising to find real stuntmen doing their thing or actual sets being built. For another thing, they let the actors play with their roles–reportedly, Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson wrote their own dialogue for many scenes they shared together; that’s why their chemistry as partners is spot-on. Also, the Russo brothers let the characters feel like real people we could know in our own lives–the opening scene introduces Steve to Sam aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and their dialogue together genuinely feels like two war veterans sharing their stories.

And also (and I’m saving this for last because I think it’s really cool), they’re big fans of Honest Trailers, the web series from YouTube channel Screen Junkies that picks apart little details here and there–they aimed for this film to be “Honest-Trailer-proof.” That just lets you know they’re thinking of both the audience and the film critics.

Fun fact: Screen Junkies did an Honest Trailer for this movie, which led to the Russo brothers being interviewed by the channel’s host Hal Rudnick and Honest Trailers writers Dan Murrell and Spencer Gilbert.

So, yeah. This movie’s great. It’s one of my favorite MCU movies. What are my other favorites? Well, I’ll post about those as well in this Looking Back at 2010s Films series…except “Iron Man,” one of my top-3 MCU faves, because that awesomeness came out in 2008.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: Oculus (2014)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, my favorite thing about the 2005 dramatic thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is that it left everything up to the viewer’s interpretation, giving us different possibilities as to why something happened the way it did. Was it the supernatural or was it something simpler?

Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” did something very similar in its first hour. It involves two siblings who both went through a traumatic experience involving the death of their parents. The brother has been living in a mental institution since then, convincing himself that it was a violent domestic issue and not the cause of something supernatural he now believes his traumatized mind came up with as a coping mechanism. What was it he thought caused the tragedy? A haunted mirror that manipulates people’s minds. He’s now released and welcomed back by his sister…who now has the mirror and still believes it was what caused the horrible ordeal that killed their parents. So, she decides to bring her brother in as she documents her experiments with the mirror before she attempts to kill it.

(Why she doesn’t bring other people in as witnesses to this apparent supernatural presence, I don’t know, but…never mind.)

I love the first hour of “Oculus,” as the sister is dead-set to prove that her parents were victims of something that can’t be explained that dwells within the mirror itself and brother has spent years proving to himself that it’s not real. Now he has to convince her that things they went through did not happen the way they remember it, but she’s shocked to find that he has no recollection of what she believes truly happened. This is great stuff!

The rest of the film is good too (and you can even make the argument that what happens in the final act isn’t actually what happens). There are some very good chilling moments (including one involving an apple…yecch), some more insight into our main characters slowly but surely going crazy, and an effective way to show flashbacks and have them intersect with present-day events. But that first hour, which allowed us to consider one thing when another thing seemed too obvious from the start, is so damn good, it kind of feels like a different movie. But I still like “Oculus” overall, for challenging me as well as scaring me.

And it was the first film to give filmmaker Mike Flanagan some much-needed attention (he had another film before, a low-budget thriller called “Absentia,” but that hardly went anywhere). Little did he know that it would lead to more projects that would cement his status as one of the very best horror directors working today.

Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Sacrament (2014)

15 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

I stated before that I’m a supporter of the found-footage/faux-documentary format (again, when it’s done right). One of the inspirations I turned to when making my own fake-documentary feature was Ti West’s “The Sacrament.”

“The Sacrament” is a faux-documentary thriller in which a small VICE camera crew (played by AJ Bowen, Kentucker Audley, and Joe Swanberg) travels to a secluded religious community, where people who were down on their luck come together to live in peace and serve the community founder, simply called “Father” (Gene Jones). Everything seems fine, until they come across some members who beg them to take them away from here. With that tension comes the paranoid possibility that the crew will return home to reveal too much about the community. And with that…comes complete chaos.

The trailer tried to be clever in hiding where this whole ordeal is going, but even if you haven’t seen the movie already, you can tell where this story is going: it’s based on the Jonestown massacre.

But even so, “The Sacrament” is a gripping thrill ride. Once everything goes to hell, it’s just a question of which of our main characters could survive and how long it will take before they finally make their way out of this horrible experience. And unlike most first-person-perspective movies, I’m not wondering why the characters keep filming everything–they’re a media group getting as much of the story as they can in the hopes that they can get out of this situation with their lives and reveal it to the world. I buy that.

And because I buy that, I’m constantly on-edge when everything goes from bad to worse, because we’re seeing things mostly through the eyes of our protagonists, whether they’re hiding from armed guards or running to a new location. We even get disturbing footage from the antagonists as well, after they take one of the cameras–the most brutal scene that comes from this is a static-shot scene in which someone is forcibly poisoned and dies in his sister’s arms. The poor guy…

Oh, and I should also mention that because our heroes are camera operators & documentarians, that creates a perfect alibi to keep shots steady, except for when they’re running for their lives while filming! It’s the little things that prevent criticism…except for when it comes to people who claim the idea of exploiting the Jonestown massacre for horror-movie purposes is in bad-taste. (It’s just a movie.)