Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house, has enough hits and great films to stand side by side with any other studio. Founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli has reliably cranked out masterpieces for thirty years, including My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Spirited Away. Masters work there, transporting viewers to magical realms and enrapturing them with pure emotional storytelling. In The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Mami Sunada visits the grounds of Studio Ghibli to record the creation of Miyazaki's and Takahata's latest films. Sunada takes a Wiseman-esque fly on the wall approach, plopping her camera down, melting into the furniture, and recording the normal workings of Ghibli at an abnormal time. Luckily for her, Miyazaki is in a reflective mode, opining on his career and the state of Japan while he races to finish what may be his final film.
Cinematic extended universes have been all the rage in Hollywood for several years, and Legendary Entertainment attempts to add a second chapter to their Monster-verse in Kong: Skull Island. Taking place decades before 2014's Godzilla remake, Jordan Vogt-Roberts sets his giant monster film at the end of the Vietnam War, paying homage to the movie staples about that conflict (Apocalypse Now plus some Rambo) while also poking fun at the muscle-bound action flicks of the 80's. More fun and dynamic than the cinematically-impressive but dramatically-bland Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island is a step in the right direction for Legendary.
My Life As a Zucchini is a perfect example of the 'sad kids are sad' subgenre of films, a subgenre that consistently work on me. There's no better place for this than an orphanage, where Claude Barras' stop-motion film is set. However, this is no misery porn. My Life As a Zucchini might focus on adorably-animated children recovering from abuse or abandonment, but it's also a tribute to resiliency, to the ability of the young human mind to incorporate the bad into its gray matter but nevertheless seek out the joyful at every opportunity. The French have a long tradition of bittersweet films about childhood, spanning from Francois Truffaut to writer Celine Sciamma's other work, and Barras' beautiful tale fits squarely in that tradition.
Before Toni Erdmann, my standard line was that the longer a comedy gets, the less likely it is to stay consistently entertaining. Wedding Crashers certainly has this problem, as do the last three Judd Apatow-directed films. Clocking it at 18 minutes short of three hours, Maren Ade's German comedy dispels that rule. On top of the unheard-of runtime, Germany's not exactly known for its sense of humor, unless one counts the narration of Werner Herzog. Closer to the length of wartime epics than father-daughter mess-arounds, Toni Erdmann defies expectations and assumptions to be a consistently surprising and very funny film.
Far more than the toyetic corporate mess that was expected, 2014's The LEGO Movie surprised with its high rate of humor and emotion in its storyline. Did the iconic Danish company sell a lot of LEGO sets derived from the movie? Of course they did, but based on the original and inventive work of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The LEGO Movie managed to be about story first and commerce second, or at least fool the viewer into believing that. Of the many strong components of The LEGO Movie, few were as memorable as Will Arnett's voicing of Batman. Playing the superhero as a self-satisfied bro dining out on his past trauma, Arnett, Lord, and Miller punctured the overly-serious tone of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy while still clearly admiring the character as a bad-ass cool guy. With the LEGO Batman Movie, Lord and Miller switch over to producing, but those who stepped into writing and directing share the same sense of the character, ably balancing his pathos with his inherent silliness.
One thing I’ve come to respect about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is their willingness to gamble by straying away from the standard superhero genre. Whether it be creating a ragtag underdog team like “Guardians of the Galaxy” or going full-on heist movie with “Ant-Man,” The MCU has never feared a little genre bending. So, what does it opt to do once it finally gets its hands on the coveted “Spider-Man” franchise again? Of course, make a teen comedy out of it! “Spider-Man: Homecoming” successfully manages to be a teen comedy with superhero trappings thanks to a strong cast of characters and the proper grounding of a universe often lacking exactly that.
The first John Wick burst into theaters and reinvigorated the old-man action genre with visceral action and world-building from its stuntmen-turned-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Keanu Reeves ably joined Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington as aging actors entering a new and bloody phase of their careers, though Reeves never left this world and had no problem portraying a credible action star. A simple tale of revenge, John Wick sang with acrobatic double-taps and beautifully-used character actors. The sequel gains a bigger budget and more exposure, but it loses Leitch, off directing Charlize Theron in her own upcoming action extravaganza, and any sense of surprise. John Wick: Chapter 2 simply moves the same style of action to new environments in a bludgeoning and repetitive rehash.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.