The Fits (2015, Anne Rose Holmer)

Lead girl Toni (Royalty Hightower) is boxing with her brother at the rec center until she gets intrigued by the dance team of girls across the hall. And one by one, from older to younger, the dancers start having fits. A good example of movies being much more than their story, because this was endlessly watchable and barely had a story – lots of boxing and fitness and dance practice, the widescreen lens following Toni closely.

J. Bailey:

Holmer primarily tells her story in the brute strength of her imagery, the way the camera regards Toni as a solitary figure, even when among other people, and then subtly shifts that perspective as she finds herself in a period of discovery and reinvention. Oh, and then her dance teammates start having peculiar, unexplained seizures, a narrative shift that somehow doesn’t dismantle the delicate tonal foundation. It’s the kind of film that’s almost inexplicable — I’m not sure how it was devised, or how it was executed. But I’m glad it exists.

D’Angelo:

Formally dazzling, which might have been enough had The Fits been a short … or had its central metaphor been a tad less bluntly obvious (these fits only affect pubescent girls, you say? They’re frightening, but also liberating? Those who haven’t experienced them envy those who have? Hmm…).

The Jungle Book (2016, Jon Favreau)

Nobody wanted to pick between the Rohmer and the Pasolini, so I brought out the dark-horse Disney flick as a sorry compromise. I heard it might actually be great, but it was… okay. Had to get used to the digital animals looking so cartoony in motion, though their speech and mouth movements were the most realistic I’ve seen since Whiskers, The Kitten Who Can Name Fruit. Admittedly this was probably better in theaters in 3D, but we watched in HD on our big screen with the volume up, so I feel like if there’s real magic, we would’ve felt it. Anyway it was fun.

Songs worked better in context of the cartoon, and were pried into this version, making it feel like it’s referencing the original – so not only a remake for new audiences, but one that wants you to have watched the original. Between that and the cartoony animals wanting so badly to be real, it’s a conflicted movie – one of Disney’s “live action” remakes without much live action (the kid was okay).

Usually I don’t notice celebrity voice casting so much, but it’s hard to miss Christopher Walken (King Louie) and Bill Murray (Baloo). Katy recognized Idris Elba (evil tiger), Scarlett Johansson (evil snake), and Ben Kingsley (fatherly panther Bagheera). Apologies to Garry Shandling and Giancarlo Esposito and Lupita Nyong’o, I guess, for blending in and not sounding distractingly like stunt celeb casting.

Ignatiy V.:

Its jungle is a complete simulacrum: Everything from the birds to the leaves is artificial, which means that nothing can ever stand out as unreal. The ironic exception is Sethi’s manic Mowgli, mugging on partial sets against blue screen; in a digital world realized by a dream team of effects studios, the one real thing seems fake.

Never before realized that Baloo is a sloth bear.

The Day He Arrives (2011, Hong Sang-soo)

A film director is in his hometown of Seoul for a night, fails to connect with a friend, hangs out with some students and gets drunk then looks up an old flame. The film director is in his hometown of Seoul for a night, connects with his friend, they hang out with a woman the friend knows named Boram and the owner of the Novel bar. A film director is in his hometown of Seoul for a night, connects with his friend and a former lead actor, and they all go to the Novel Bar. But the movie title is the first clue that these are alternate versions of the same day with recurring characters in different situations. I lost track of the female characters, but in my defense it’s all kinda disorienting. Ah, further in my defense: the old flame and the bar owner are the same actress.

Boram with the film director:

Our lead filmmaker is Joon-sang Yoo of at least five other Hong movies, and his buddy’s friend Boram from at least parts 2 & 3 was Seon-mi Song of Woman on the Beach, which is also about a film director hanging out with his friend. The only other Hong movie I’ve seen is Oki’s Movie, which also involved variations and repetition – I’m assuming from reading some reviews that most of his movies do. Played at Cannes UCR with Elena, which I watched the day before this. Dialogue-heavy with unshowy compositions, then one zoom per scene – I started to wait for the zoom, wonder when it would come. Pleasant viewing, gets more engrossing as the day(s) roll on, but didn’t leave me with an aftertaste of joy and wonder like Oki’s Movie did.

L-R: bar owner, the friend, the actor

Quintín:

The last scene of The Day He Arrives can be seen as a correction to the scene in Oki’s Movie where a young filmmaker refuses to allow his picture to be taken by a woman he meets in the park. This time, a woman says that she’s an admirer of the filmmaker, and when she asks him to pose for a photograph, he answers that he doesn’t like to do it but he complies anyway … Over the course of the film, Sungjoon experiences the usual bittersweet encounters with women, but also finds himself in a rather hostile film milieu, where he is harassed by film students, people don’t remember him or don’t like him or the other way around. In this last scene, where an unknown woman shows she cares for his work, Sungjoon seems to feel that nothing is wrong with his place in life, even if there might not be another film in his future. Hong’s previous films were always about a guy keeping pace of his career and feeling unsure about his work, whether he was successful or not.

Elena (2011, Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Elena is recently married to Vlad (Andrey Smirnov, a writer/director who was working on his own film when this was shooting). He comes from a cold, rich family and she comes from a larger, lazier family. He decides not to give her college money in order to keep her oldest grandson out of the military, so she kills him with a Viagra overdose in his meds cup, burns his in-progress will, and brings cash from his safe to her son. Seems like a straightforward crime/family drama, but with details I didn’t know how to place, like the final scene, where the oldest son joins his buddies outside to beat the shit out of some people.

J. Hoberman:

The movie grows ever more emotionally complex. Beginning with the image of a dead horse that Elena spots from a train and ending with a shot of an unattended infant, the final scenes seem to spring from her guilty conscience. Largely unremarkable in themselves, the revelation of an unexpected pregnancy, the experience of a routine power failure, an instance of casual teenage brutality, and the sight of a family gathering before the TV are cumulatively disturbing.

Won second or third place in Cannes UCR, in competition with Hors Satan and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Zvyagintsev:

One of the things that I wanted to emphasize is that money changed human nature. It is especially visible in Russia, because we never had that before due to social circumstances. All of us had 120 rubles per month and then all of a sudden 20 years ago we were thrown into the world of capitalism and consumerism, unprepared. That changed us in an unexplainable way… I’m confident that this story isn’t just about Russia, it’s about human nature, it’s universal. But just in the Russian context, it’s more visible and actualized.

Hell or High Water (2016, David Mackenzie)

Pretty straightforward cops and robbers movie given unexpected depth by having its bank thieves rage against a local bank’s predatory home loans. Director Mackenzie (I somewhat liked his Asylum and Young Adam in the pre-blog days) and writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) fill the movie with plenty of incident and suspense but include enough time for the four leads to hang out and relate to each other, so in the climax when the killing starts, the stakes seem much higher.

Pretty man Chris Pine is the brains behind the bank heists, has even consulted with a lawyer on the subject of robbing branches of the bank that will soon foreclose on his family land, then opening a trust with that same bank so they’re not inclined to cooperate with police investigating him for the robberies. Because you see, Pine has discovered oil on the property, and after a life of farming in poverty, he’s finally got a chance to leave something to his kids. So there are some typical movie coincidences at play here, but the anger at the banking system comes through loud and clear (funny that I watched this the day after Office).

Pine’s less stable older brother Ben Foster (one of the angels in Northfork) is his partner in crime. The great Jeff Bridges plays a mumbly old, jovially racist lawman with partner Gil Birmingham (Jacqueline’s dad in Kimmy Schmidt), whose death still comes as a shock even though that’s the sort of thing that happens in these movies. Great epilogue with Bridges meeting Pine for the first time for a civil chat, each simmering with rage over the deaths of their respective partners.

M. Singer:

Sheridan previously wrote the outstanding drug-war thriller Sicario; he specializes in stories that don’t sacrifice intelligence for excitement, set in moral minefields where even relatively honest people can be undone by a single wrong step.

A.A. Dowd:

It’s quite a feat, orchestrating a crime thriller that feels at once relaxed and urgent, that delivers an endless supply of comic banter without compromising its underlying tone of elegiac regret … Viewers may find, in that grand Fugitive tradition, that their sympathies are divided, especially once Hell Or High Water begins pulling its two plot strands together, clarifying its outlaws’ motives, and building to the fatalistic finale it absolutely earns.

Office (2015, Johnnie To)

Oh man, what an idea – take a story of office politics during the 2008 banking crisis and turn it into a heightened musical on stylishly artificial sets, directed by master of spatial composition Johnnie To. I loved this.

Company IPO, new partnership and financial audit are all happening at once. Chairman Chow Yun Fat (first movie I’ve seen of his since Curse of the Golden Flower) and CEO Ms. Chang (film writer Sylvia Chang, also of Eat Drink Man Woman) run the company and are having a not-so-secret affair.

Cheatin’ David (HK McDonald’s spokeman Eason Chan) also has something going with Ms. Chang but starts warming up to Heartbroken Sophie (Tang Wei of Lust, Caution) in finance so she’ll help him hide a bad trade.

Energetic new guy Wang Ziyi (who introduces himself to people by mentioning Ang Lee, who has directed films starring half this movie’s lead actors) bounces around the office, falling for new girl Lang Yueting, who nobody realizes is the chairman’s daughter, covertly getting to know the company she’ll soon be running.

S. Kraicer:

Wong Kar-wai’s inspired art director William Chang has concocted a highly stylized vision of a postmodern office setting: a theatrical, open-concept, multi-storied abstraction of a contemporary financial firm, complete with lobby and adjoining metro station. As fundamentally structuralist as ever (though he hides it well), To stages the complex romantic and financial-scheme-devising interactions of his stellar cast with a fluency that dazzles.

Probably would’ve dazzled even more in 3D, which is how it was presented in theaters.

D. Kasman:

This abstract pleasure of dashing lines and depth-play is at the service of an ebullient imagining of the corporate world in unparalleled transparency, one which the contemporary architectural trend of glass-scape monuments and faux-communal interior layouts insincerely aim at evoking. But what Chang’s screenplay reveals through this radical transparency is that Office is very much another Johnnie To film about killing: the killing of the soul within the corporate workspace, the killing of romance within a culture of materialism, and the killing of brother- and sisterhood within the machine of corporate capitalism. Its deadly thrust is naked for all to see. It joins To’s triptych drama Life Without Principle and the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart skyscraper romcoms to make for a series of blistering, cynical, and ruthlessly analytic portraits of the luxury-slick surfaces and corrosive-sick structures of global urban capitalism.

Wolf Children (2012, Mamoru Hosoda)

Maybe my favorite of the four Hosoda movies we watched. Katy complains that it conformed to gender norms, as the girl suppressed her wolf nature to fit in with other schoolkids, and the boy went full-wolf into the wilderness. And we both thought it odd that the kids’ mom makes love with their werewolf dad while he’s in wolf form.

But most of the movie is about the mom trying to raise two wolf children, with nobody she can confide in, and while I usually don’t go for all-sacrificing parent stories, the unique challenges here along with the kids’ gradually-developing personalities and the mom’s low-key perseverance added up to something special. The advantages of animation are more apparent here than in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, as the kids transform into wolves and back at will (and unconsciously) in the middle of shots.

Mouseover for wolf children:
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Adam Cook:

This is certainly the closest Hosoda has come to replicating the magic of Miyazaki. In fact, several scenes seem to deliberately reference the great man’s work, particularly the sequence where the children discover their new provincial home for the first time.

Ernest & Celestine (2012, Stéphane Aubier)

Sure it’s the cutest-ever story of an orphan mouse who befriends a hermit criminal bear, but it also has major subplots about teeth theft at the behest of a sinister orphanage.

Also there’s a family with a dentist mom who works across the street from her candy seller husband, which is funny and low-key cynical but they don’t seem to deserve the chaos Ernest wreaks upon their businesses.

Beautiful watercolor backgrounds, often fading away at the edges. According to the codirector the writing was influenced by Studio Ghibli (naturally) and Kikujiro (ha!).

I was crazy about it, but something seemed off with the English voices. After just having seen The Little Prince and feeling Jeff Bridges was just perfect as the inventor neighbor, I wasn’t feeling Forest Whitaker as Ernest. The movie is short, so I watched it again in French with original Ernest Lambert Wilson (the American in Not On The Lips), which was perhaps an improvement, perhaps not, but either way a joy to see twice.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016, Travis Knight)

The ultimate meta-storytelling, misfit-family, humans-vs-gods, origami-magic, epic-quest movie featuring the ultimate ass-kicking monkey.

My only complaint about the gorgeous stop-motion, which features a centerpiece sailboat battle that is possibly the best scene I’ve ever seen accomplished in animation, is that it’s all so perfectly executed that you often can’t tell it’s stop-motion.

We stayed through the credits to see my favorite armaturist’s name on the big screen – way to go, Spake!

J. Spiegel:

I was pretty much an emotional wreck for the last 25-30 minutes of Kubo. It’s not that I was surprised by the twists–very soon after we meet Monkey and Beetle (the former of whom voices Kubo’s actual mother), it’s pretty clear that they’re not just metaphorical stand-ins for his parents, but literal ones. It’s that the way the script handles the notion of accepting death and treating it as a fitting end to our “story” was unexpected and achingly humane.

D. Ehrlich:

The physical reality of their characters conveys an otherwise impossible sense of impermanence, and reveals stop-motion to be the perfect vehicle for a story about the beauty of being finite. The movies have explored the afterlife almost as thoroughly as they have life on Earth, but this one is so powerful because of the precision with which it articulates these immortal ideas of transience.

T. Robinson for The Verge:

One of Laika’s ideals is that only one animator should work on a given scene at a time … for instance, in a scene where Kubo stands in a wooded area and a wind blows through the trees, that’s the work of a single animator moving every leaf and branch separately. The process is incredibly laborious: On Kubo, 27 animators worked simultaneously on their own scenes, each trying to achieve the company goal of 4.3 seconds of animation per week, and more often, only hitting about three seconds per week.