Movie Review – Eternity (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something at least worthwhile on a visual and aural level.

REVIEW: For those who don’t know my nationality, I am Vietnamese. And because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture, but there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me. And those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were always amazing on a visual level as well as an aural level. Immigrated to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

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Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline.

The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

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As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But for those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films, those were never in service of a plot. They were all in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her patriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

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And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

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And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, for viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity to be a sensual delight that would most likely cast a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

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Quickie Review

PROS

CONS

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter, Tran Nu Yen Khe
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Alice Ferney (based on the novel, L’Elegance des veuves), Tran Anh Hung

Movie Review – Being 17 (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as good as Girlhood.

REVIEW: This will be my first review from of a few entries for this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and if Being 17 is any indication, the festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 showing at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

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The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes traveling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realize, that this would end up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompanies the genre and it pays off beautifully. Working with less-than-usual dialogue and more reliant on physical expressions, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

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The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and is also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully capture by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether it is hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes them believable that the character would do such a thing.

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But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are present for the sake of foreshadowing, but it leads to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is very questionable and it should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

But overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to emotionally satisfy.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, emotionally satisfying storytelling

Beautiful cinematography

CONS

Morally questionable moments

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma

Movie Review – The Eagle Huntress

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EXPECTATIONS: An informative documentary about eagle hunting.

REVIEW: Now I admit, I do not watch a lot of documentaries, but the ones I did watch were all great. And yet somehow, there are documentaries that I’ve seen in the past that don’t feel like documentaries at all, mainly because the stories behind them are a little too hard to believe. Films like Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine have been accused of being false, manipulative as well as misleading.

I start off with this because the documentary, The Eagle Huntress, has been accused of being staged, scripted and even acted. But even factoring all of this, does that clench the final verdict that the documentary is a bad viewing experience? In this case, yes and no.

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The documentary follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv, an incredibly optimistic 13 year-old girl, who long has been fascinated by the practice of eagle hunting, as demonstrated by her father as well as her grandfather.

They of course encourage her interest, despite the fact that she spends weekdays at a school far from the family home, due to the lack of dorms in the Altai Mountains region. At her school, she is practically known as a tomboy, where she both excels academically as well as athletically.

Her father then takes her out to capture an eagle chick off a cliff face and after the ritual, we see the progress between Aisholpan and the bird to the point where she enters unannounced in a eagle hunting competition, being the only female competitor.

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From the subject alone as well as its political implications, it’s a surefire winner. Aisholpan is a wonderful subject that is sure to inspire many due to her empowerment, her strength and her sheer will to succeed in what she wants to be, and the filmmakers milk it for all their worth.

Aisholpan doesn’t seem to go through many obstacles throughout the film despite a few  negative outbursts from the townspeople due to traditionalist (i.e. sexist) values, like how a woman should stick to staying home.

And what makes the film problematic is that the editing is constructed in a way that it makes the events feel staged, instead of organic. The musical score (including the closing song from Sia) unfortunately adds to the issue as well, feeling like the filmmaker is force-feeding an agenda, rather than just document the subject. Even the narration from Daisy Ridley (whose voice I love to hear) is quite unnecessary.

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The film is definitely well-shot (thanks to Simon Niblett), with all of the crane as well as drone shots, showing the wide scope of the mountains and the valleys in Western Mongolia beautifully. And there are moments where there is actual suspense, like in a scene where Aisholpan and her father are riding their horses through incredibly deep snow that is almost shoulder-high.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly admire the message and found the journey of Aisholpan very inspiring and if it inspires one person out there to be more like her, then the film can’t possibly be bad. But the morally questionable film-making just distracts me to the point that I can’t possibly fully give it total credit.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Inspiring story

Aisholpan is a great heroine

CONS

Questionable film-making

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rhys Nurgaiv, Kuksyegyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Daisy Ridley (narrator)
Director: Otto Bell
Screenwriter: N/A

Movie Review – Pieta in the Toilet

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EXPECTATIONS: A long, understated drama held together by its two appealing leads.

REVIEW: Terminal affliction dramas have been a long trope in films, with such classics like Love Story, Bright Star, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Biutiful and Sunny; either handling the subject manner in an understated manner or wringing all the dramatic juice out of it for all of its worth.

It is definitely used as an easy in for audience sympathy, which some filmmakers have taken advantage of to the point that there have been some horrific films like My Sister’s Keeper, P.S I Love You, Restless and of course, Me Before You. Those are examples that are exploitative, insistent and borderline offensive.

So when I was planning to watch Pieta in the Toilet, I was a bit nervous as to how the film would turn out. But I had an open mind when I read that the director of the film, Daishi Matsunaga, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make this film his first narrative feature. His background in documentaries could be a positive factor in making the approach to the terminal affliction genre as realistic as possible. So did the film put my mind at ease and impress me, despite my doubts?

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Yojiro Oda stars as Sonoda, a former art school graduate who currently works as a window-washer. After lightly berating a new employee over fainting on the job, he himself faints, and consults a doctor about. In a blunt fashion towards Sonoda (as well as the audience), the doctor says that he is suffering advanced stages of stomach cancer and he must commence stages of chemotherapy to increase the chances of beating it.

Gradually, we learn more about Sonoda and his past, which includes his ex-girlfriend Satsuki (Saya Ichikawa), who is also an artist, but unlike Hiroshi, she was able to become a success, exhibiting one-woman shows of her samples of artwork. As Sonoda learns about his illness, he decides to hold off on telling his family and tries to get Satsuki to pose as his sister. But after a fight between the two, Sonoda spots Mai (Hana Sugisaki), an impulsive high school girl who is berating an older gentleman for accidentally tearing up her school uniform.

Sonoda agrees to pay for the damages if she would pose as his sister and she reluctantly agrees. It is then that the two start an unlikely relationship that we gradually see that they might have more in common than one would think.

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Now how does the film rank alongside other terminal affliction entries? Pretty damn high, I must say. Pieta in the Toilet is a seemingly simple story effectively told with fantastic direction, top-notch performances, a well-written script and indescribable cinematography that is reminiscent of the cinematography in Linda Linda Linda (both lensed by Ikeuchi Yoshihiro).

First off, the direction. As mentioned earlier, director Daishi Matsunaga had directed documentaries before this; one being about an actual famous artist, and it clearly shows in his latest effort. Aiming for the tone to be realistic yet extracting beauty throughout the mundane settings like a swimming pool or a hospital, Matsunaga strikes the perfect balance that makes the film a lot more hopeful that one would think of its grim story.

The storytelling is also very understated and never resides to tugging heartstrings or playing sappy music to get its emotions across. Sometimes, it is a bit too understated to the point that it makes one wonder if the film is as clinical as the hospital setting. Fortunately, Matsunaga bides his time, gradually building up the momentum of the story as well as developing his characters that it creates a genuinely cathartic pay-off.

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The actors deserve massive credit for making the film as credible as it is. Yojiro Oda (part of RADWIMPS, a rock band that is responsible for the score in the animated blockbuster, Your Name) gives an effective performance as Sonoda that might be a bit muted at first, but like the film, gets more emotional throughout the running time.

On the contrary, Hana Sugisaki is fantastic as the brash and impulsive Mai, who may have a tough exterior, but would eventually reveal a more vulnerable side. Her interactions, whether she’s being flirtatious or antagonistic, are always nuanced and she never goes cutesy to get the interest of the audience. There’s a scene in a swimming pool where she and Oda confront each other and it is a compelling experience of anger, acceptance, naivety and stubbornness that is strongly poignant.

As for the supporting actors, Lily Franky is a delight as a pervert/hospital patient who befriends Sonoda. Not only does he bring some much-needed humour to the proceedings, he also brings credibility to the dramatic parts alongside Oda, making the progression of Sonoda very easy to believe. He also shows his bare ass (not on the titular toilet, fortunately), which alone earns extra points. While Rie Miyazawa, a great veteran actress, does wonders with her small role as a mother of a cancer patient, and she even has a scene to herself that is one of the best scenes in the film.

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Speaking of best scenes in the film, the climax is a thing of beauty that perfectly encapsulates the arcs of the characters, the beauty of its story and even surprises with its daring final shot. It may last a few seconds and it proceeds past the point where it would seem obvious to a normal storyteller would end their story, but without going into spoilers, there is something about it that really pays off in retrospect.

Despite its strange title that would understandably turn people off, Pieta in the Toilet is a wonderful piece of film-making with fantastic performances, assured storytelling, a well-written script and surprisingly beautiful cinematography that not only adds hope to the story itself, but the genre as well.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its cast

Wonderful direction/storytelling that balances beauty and realism in a grim story

Surprising cinematography that finds beauty in the most mundane settings

CONS

May be too understated for its own good in the first two acts

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yojiro Noda, Hana Sugisaki, Lily Franky, Saya Ichikawa, Shinobu Otake, Rie Miyazawa
Director: Daishi Matsunaga
Screenwriters: Daishi Matsunaga, Osamu Tezuka (original concept)

Movie Review – Silence

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EXPECTATIONS: An impressively mounted yet disarmingly esoteric tale.

REVIEW: If there’s one film-maker off the top of my head that, in my opinion, hasn’t made a bad film, that film-maker would be Martin Scorsese. Venturing from genre to genre with ease (Who can go from the family fantasy Hugo to the dark comedy The Wolf of Wall Street just like that?) and always applying professional care and passion within his projects, Scorsese is a film-maker whose work I will definitely watch, no matter what the subject is.

In the case of his newest film, Silence, the film explores themes of religious debate and how far faith can go within our lives. It’s not the first time Scorsese has explored these type of themes, with his earlier films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun variably show, but Silence has been in the making close to 40 years; which is clearly a passion project for him. Has the time spent paid off in spades, or will it just end up being a footnote in an otherwise, sterling filmography?

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Set in 1635, the film opens with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being shown captive in Japan over the fact that Catholicism is outlawed there, leading Ferreira to be tortured (through the use of scalding hot spring water) to renounce his faith.

Back in Macau, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) receive word of Ferreira’s story, and are shocked in disbelief. Willing to see the truth for themselves, they set forth to Japan to try to find their mentor as well as spread the word of Catholicism. But little do they know about the world they venture in, the things that they see and experience will change and challenge their beliefs forever.

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I have to admit, due to the subject matter, I was quite hesitant about this film. Not being a religious or devout person myself, and having little to no prior knowledge about the themes shown, I was afraid that I would be left distant throughout. While it may not be the masterpiece that people were expecting, Scorsese hasn’t let us down as Silence is clearly his most heartfelt and personal.

All of Scorsese‘s films have great production values and Silence is no exception. Looking as if Scorsese is doing an homage to Japanese cinema by using all of its film-making tropes (deliberate pacing, very little edits, lack of musical score etc.), the film crew are all capably up to the task. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production design by Dante Ferretti (whom previously collaborated with Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street) is spectacularly naturalistic, capturing the vistas of Taiwan (substituting for Japan) beautifully, while also capturing the period details as well the chaos of the ideological conflicts in the story.

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The editing by Scorsese veteran Thelma Schoonmaker is admirably restrained, which may look like a surprise when you compare it to her contribution in The Wolf of Wall Street. The faint musical score is thankfully isn’t as bombastic as the music in the trailer (like the scenes of torture), although for those who are not knowledgeable about the subject matter will find it hard to know how to emotionally engage themselves at some particular moments i.e.  a scene in the third act where a certain character is being forced to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. The themes of the film are quite thought-provoking and certainly adds to the value of the film i.e. the juxtaposition of pride and faith, the questionable reliance of God (hence one of the reasons of the film’s title).

The actors certainly are up to the task to support Scorsese‘s vision. Andrew Garfield has had a good year in 2016 with both this and Hacksaw Ridge, and he gives a great performance as Father Rodrigues, as he shows the many facets of the character (the passion, the pride, the obliviousness) very well, which is quite a feat considering that his character isn’t unlikable in the slightest.

The Caucasian supporting cast, consisting of Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Ciaran Hinds are all good with the parts they are given, especially Neeson, whose presence is felt throughout the film despite a small amount of screen-time. But it is the Japanese cast that make the biggest impression.

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Yosuke Kubozuka essentially plays the Judas-like role in the film as Kichijiro, and he nails it, showing the feral instincts of humans perfectly whilst also showing conflicting views on how to look at faith. Shinya Tsukamoto, who is well-known as a fantastic director, gives a committed performance as Mokichi, a villager whose absolute faith in Catholicism could lead to certain danger, while Tadanobu Asano is low-key menacing as the interpreter for the Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata.

Speaking of Ogata, his role is the biggest standout of the Japanese cast. Whether that is a good thing will be up to the audience. Unsure of whether he is meant to be menacing or comedic (or both?), his performance is quite reminiscent of Christoph Waltz‘s performance in Inglourious Basterds. The performance can deflate dramatic scenes at times, while in contrast, the comic relief could also be just that: a relief. Which is quite suitable considering the grim subject matter.

For those who are into Japanese cinema, there are many cameos from famous stars and character actors that they will appreciate i.e. Ryo Kase, Nana Komatsu, Hairi Katagiri, Asuka Kurosawa, AKIRA EXILE, SABU, Shun Sugata, Yoshi Oida and many others.

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As much as I like to brand this film as a masterpiece, there is just too many flaws for me to do so. The subject matter is told too esoterically to the uninitiated; the pacing is too slow for the film to be engaging throughout; the lack of music does hurt the film due the lack of pushing and telegraphing the film’s dramatic moments and it is the result of these two that Scorsese fans will probably think that Silence is too subdued for them.

Funnily enough, the violence in the film, while it is intense in how detached the film dwells on it, shouldn’t bother people much, since the similar thematic film, The Passion of the Christ, was also very violent, but much more unrestrained when compared to Silence.

Overall, Silence is not one of his best films, but if you like his earlier films that dwell upon religious themes, this compares favourably and is clearly a passion project for Scorsese that is well worth checking out. It may not be entertaining per se, but it is most certainly an illuminating experience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Glorious production values

Many themes provoke ample food-for-thought

CONS

The subject matter is too esoterically told

Lack of emotional engagement

The pacing can be too laborious for some

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase, Hairi Katagiri, Shun Sugata,  AKIRA EXILE, SABU
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks; based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo

Movie Review – Raw (Monster Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something fantastic as it is gory.

REVIEW: In the past decade, I have grown an affinity for French film, especially when they venture into the horror genre. With unbearably intense entries like Inside, Martyrs, Frontier(s); or artful entries like Amer, Evolution, Livid; and film classics like Les Diaboliques and Possession, I had an intense itch to satisfy that could only be satiated with another stellar entry.

So when I read about the huge buzz at Cannes and TIFF about a French cannibal horror film, which involves ambulances at screenings and tons of awards, I knew I had to see that film as soon as possible. Now let’s serve this review Raw, with all the sides!

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Garance Marillier stars as Justine, a shy, yet extremely bright young vegetarian who is following his parents’ footsteps (Joanna Preiss, Laurent Lucas) as well as her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), by attending vet school. She arrives at the university and immediately gets dragged into a hazing initiation, which shows her a world of thrills and danger.

Desperate to fit in, she strays from her principles and eats raw meat for the first time. With sheer amounts of peer pressure, a bunch of alcohol and joints of drugs, Justine soon experiences terrible and unexpected consequences as her true self begins to emerge.

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From reading the synopsis, it may seem like that this film is more of a coming-of-age film, rather than a horror entry. And after seeing the final result, that is actually what it is. The storytelling is surprisingly grounded given its genre trappings and director Julia Ducournau handles the film with such an assured hand, that the film rarely feels heavy-handed, even with its unsubtle metaphors (A vegetarian who is also a virgin?).

The genre execution mixed with the plausible grounding of the story is meshed really well, like how a character eats meat for the first time, which is quite reminiscent of experimentation just to conform. Or how one goes to university to discover who they are and how they fit in the world, which is conveyed in the truly messy fashion it is, that almost anyone can relate to. And it is because of Ducournau‘s direction and storytelling chops, that we have an emotional attachment to the story as well as the characters.

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Speaking of the characters, the actors assembled for the film are all fantastic. Garance Marillier is astounding as Justine, as she handles the arc of her character like a professional, from the shyness to the depravity, to the vulnerability and finally the acceptance. She reminded me of a more daring version of Saoirse Ronan, and I hope she gets more meaty roles in the future. Equally as good is Ella Rumpf, who is a force of nature as Alexia. Her roughness, her rebellious nature and her slight paternal nature towards Justine, are all handled with nuance and the chemistry the two actresses share is believable and quite touching as it develops throughout the film. Seeing Rumpf on screen reminded me of a mix of French horror queen Beatrice Dalle (who stars in horror films like Inside and Among the Living) and American actress Fairuza Balk, whom I have loved since her first role in the cult-classic sequel, Return to Oz.

The cinematography by Ruben Impens extracts a lot of nightmarish, yet beautiful imagery from the university setting, particularly scenes involving animals. Like a scene involving the newcomers crawling through a vast, dark room, like ants following a trail. While the make-up, by Laura Ozier and SFX specialist Olivier Afonso (who has worked on Inside), is skin-crawlingly convincing. There is a scene where we see a person’s leg that is half eaten, and the make-up is so realistic, that I could not stop staring at it despite being repulsed by it.

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With all the gory, nightmarish imagery and the dark story, it would seem that the film would be an arduous experience. But thankfully, it never feels like that and one of the reasons is because of the editing. Under a tight running time of 98 minutes, the editing by Jean Cristophe-Bouzy is intricate, yet free-flowing at times, like during the clubbing sequences. Without the focused editing, the film could have been a lot harder to swallow.

Another reason the film doesn’t feel arduous is because director Ducournau peppers dark humour throughout the film. Like when a character is finished vomiting, a fellow student assumes that she has a eating disorder and quickly shows her how to vomit correctly. Or another scene when Alexis is giving Justine a session of Brazillian wax. It is these moments of mirth that give the film a comedic bite that is similar to the work of Daniel Waters, who has written the classic teen film, Heathers.

And lastly, the musical score by Jim Williams, which not only capably conveys both menacing and entrancing moods very well, but also gives the film a needed dramatic punch in the film’s most intense moments, especially the climax.

Raw was a fantastic experience that had shocked, surprised, thrilled and touched me. I’ll be really surprised if this does not make it to my top 10 by the end of the year. With its assured and professional direction, a fantastic pair of performances, a well-thought out story and a beautiful musical score, Raw is definitely a rewarding meal to savour.

Her film does remind me of David Cronenberg and Daniel Waters, but I will definitely remember her name: Julia Ducournau.

Quickie Review

PROS

Assured direction

Fantastic pair of performances

Focused and tight editing

Wonderful musical score

Nightmarish imagery and cinematography

Marries genre tropes and true-to-life situations cleverly

CONS

The ending is a teeny bit abrupt

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Joana Preiss, Laurent Lucas, Bouli Lanners
Director: Julia Ducournau
Screenwriters: Julia Ducournau

Movie Review – Fences

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EXPECTATIONS: A stageplay that lacks cinematic panache on the screen with fantastic performances.

REVIEW: Films that are adapted from a stageplay have always had a mixed reception. While we have classics like Glengarry Glen Ross and Sweeney Todd, we sometimes have disasters like Rent and Mamma Mia! The reason for this is because the stories of these plays do not have enough cinematic potential to succeed as a film-viewing experience or the director unfortunately isn’t capable enough to realize that potential.

So when I heard that Denzel Washington‘s next directorial project was a film based on a stageplay that he had starred in alongside the majority of the cast (including Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Russell Hornsby) from the stageplay reprising their roles, it tickled my curiosity. Does Washington succeed by jumping over the fence?

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Set in the 1950’s, Denzel Washington stars as Troy Maxson, a waste collector who lives with his loving wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo). He spends the long shifts of work, doing what he can for his family, alongside his best friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson).

We see frequent visits from other members of the family like Troy’s estranged son from another marriage, Lyons Maxson (Russell Hornsby) who frequently comes over the family home asking Troy for money; and from Troy’s brother, Gabriel Maxson (Mykelti Williamson), who sustained a head injury from World War II, leaving him mentally impaired.

Throughout the course of the film, we see the development of the characters and how much they feel constricted and restrained in their environment to the point that when the film reaches the third act, the characters will reach their breaking point. In other words, it’s not pretty.

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With this much acting talent and with Denzel Washington at the helm and a critically acclaimed screenplay by August Wilson, who wrote the stageplay, why is it that I don’t like the film as much as I wanted to? Probably because it’s just a stageplay playing on a cinema screen and not an actual film.

Let’s get to the positives first. With the exception of one, the acting is absolutely stellar. Considering that Washington and Davis both won Tony Awards for their performances in the stageplay, it’s expected. Washington shows both charisma, cockiness and menace in a compelling manner while Davis surprises, breathing life into a typical supporting wife role that could’ve been a waste of talent, but she easily upstages Washington.

Jovan Adepo does good work as Cory, the conflicted son who wants to achieve his dreams but also wants to impress his father, leading him with some very impressive and intense scenes with Washington. Stephen Henderson is fantastic as Bono that he make it incredibly easy to believe that he is best friends with Troy, as the two share wonderful chemistry, whether its friendly banter or heart-to-heart talks.

Russell Hornsby is also convincing as Troy’s estranged son, Lyons, as he provides ample proof of again, cockiness and charisma, that he makes it easy to believe that his character is the son of Troy. But the exception out the cast is Mykelti Williamson. I don’t know whether I was meant to take him seriously or to laugh with him, so I laughed at him instead. The acting borders on comical that it almost feels that he just wondered in on set and no one bothered to tell him that they were filming.

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Speaking of his character and flaws of the film, Gabriel basically embodies the trope of what I like to call the “bullshit-detector”; i.e. the character that despite their lack of social skills reveals the flaws and warts about the characters around more than the characters realize and is basically present in the film to add artificial tension. Michael Shannon is a blatant example of that in the film Revolutionary Road, in which they are more like plot devices rather than actual characters.

And don’t get me started on Gabriel’s role in the ending, which I didn’t believe for a second, despite the religious imagery peppered throughout the film i.e. the Jesus plate in the kitchen. It doesn’t help that the character of Troy is unlikable and unsympathetic that the ending even makes him more repugnant as it is made obvious that even after the events of the film, Troy is still using his brother Gabriel for his own ends.

Another flaw is the stagy feel, leaving the film lacking in cinematic panache that would have benefited the storytelling. There are scenes where Troy recounts his past that could have benefited from flashbacks to that time to keep the film interesting, but Washington never realizes that potential, leaving those scenes surprisingly lifeless as well as dragging the film’s already long running time.

Oddly enough, there’s a scene in the end of the film where two characters share a song together that is really effective in showing how big of an influence one can have on another, regardless of how they feel. But it is again ruined by a scene that feels so fake and unearned that it you wish it was cut out and it finished with the song. And once again, you guessed it, it involves Williamson‘s performance.

The stagy feel even affects the performances. While the loud, unhinged performances may work on a stageplay but on film, the performances may come across as unintentionally funny at times, like Davis‘ performance when she confronts Troy about a choice he made as well as Williamson‘s performance throughout the film.

And you would think that the performances were blatant enough to deliver the film’s messages and themes for the audience to understand, there are some egregious uses of dialogue and visual metaphors that comes across as cheesy, insistent and quite insulting.

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Lines of dialogue like “fences were built to keep people…maybe they are built to keep people in” or visual metaphors like a rose being crushed on a fence before falling to the ground while Rose gets upset (Damaged Rose with a damaged rose, get it?) just fall flat and could even inspire unintentional laughter.

So even with the acting and the talent behind the camera, Fences was a disappointment. The majority of the cast in the film were fantastic with their roles and August Wilson‘s screenplay shines at times, but the flat yet blatant direction, the unsubtle storytelling and Mykelti Williamson‘s performance just inspired me to want to build a fence around it.

I realize that this review may polarize many but hey, as this film taught me, you “gotta take the crookeds with the straights.”

Quickie Review

PROS

The acting from the majority of the cast is stellar

August Wilson’s screenplay intermittently shines

CONS

The stagy, confined feel of the film

Mykelti Williamson’s laughable performance

Blatant yet flat direction from Denzel Washington

Unintentionally hilarious moments like the use of visual metaphors and abysmal dialogue

Overlong running time

SCORE: 4/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney
Director: Denzel Washington
Screenwriter: August Wilson, based on the stageplay of the same name

Movie Review – The Edge of Seventeen

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EXPECTATIONS: A truly special teenage comedy/drama, with a standout performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

REVIEW: Teenage films have been quite a huge staple for me in the past decade. Whether they would be quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything etc.) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), I’ve always found some enjoyment for entertainment reasons as well as nostalgic reasons.

But the past few years, the portrayal of teenagers have gotten a lot more artificial, a lot more fake to the point that it becomes obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue would comprise of many moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, teenage films are more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.

Now we have the latest teenage dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, written/directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring the Oscar-nominated actress of the True Grit remake, Hailee Steinfeld and is produced by the renowned James L. Brooks. Will the film end up fixing the problems of portrayals of teenage life?

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Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a 17 year-old high school junior who is currently living the life of awkwardness as she trudges through high school. Saddled with a dramatic past, a much more successful sibling of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a stressed out mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lack of social skills, her one solid rock in life was always her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s been friends with since childhood.

That is until one day, Nadine’s life is about to take a turn for the worst when she finds out that Darian is dating Krista. Feeling more alone than ever, she again crawls through the excruciating minutiae of high school, with only a huge crush with the handsome boy at school, Nick (Alexander Calvert) to distract from her current situation.

That is until she develops into a relationship with myself a stuttering, yet thoughtful classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and along with having so-called help from her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), does she gradually realize that there might be hope ahead after all.

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When I heard that this film was written and directed by the screenwriter that wrote Post Grad, I have to admit, it did temper my expectations. But I am wholeheartedly happy to report that The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best films I have seen all year. And all of this goes down to Craig‘s grounded direction, her witty and authentic script and the wonderful performances of the entire cast.

What is great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and the storytelling approach is. Most characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which lead to some unapologetic and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty and appropriately, real.

The only time that the film ends up sounding like a movie is whenever Woody Harrelson as the incredibly droll teacher, Mr. Bruner, shows up. But Harrelson slums his role (really, he looks like he’s putting zero effort into the role) so well, that he steals the show with his hilarious interactions with Steinfeld.

Another factor I liked about Craig‘s direction is how she either lends a soft touch or subverts the cliches and tropes of the genre. For example, the supposed jerk of the film is cleverly subverted, since the motivations of the character is actually quite understandable, if not quite respectable. Another example is that some of the conclusions in the final act are executed in the subtlest of ways that rings true, like the arc between Nadine and her mother.

And the best of all is that Craig and Steinfeld never soften the character of Nadine to the point where the character strives to be likable. Nadine is shown warts-and-all and the reasoning for her behaviour is also dealt with subversively, due to the fact that her behaviour was always present, and not suddenly triggered by some dramatic event.

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But none of the storytelling and direction would work if it weren’t for the fantastic performances. Finally having a lead role she can sink her teeth into since True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld nails the role of the highly opinionated, angst-ridden and socially awkward Nadine. Nuanced, genuine and sympathetic, Steinfeld shines whenever she’s on screen, which is awesome because she’s on it 95% of the time.

There’s a scene where Nadine reluctantly goes to a party with Krista and Darian, and when the two leave her to socialize, Steinfeld acts out loneliness and heartbreak without a single word. It also helps that she also works her comedic chops with aplomb, even when saddled with the most abrasive or the lamest insults involving calling someone out with a huge head.

The supporting cast are no slouches in their department. As already mentioned, Woody Harrelson is a hoot at Mr. Bruner, as he has some great interactions with Steinfeld and he does it so effortlessly, you’d have to wonder if he just performed the role in his sleep. The same goes for Kyra Sedgwick, who has played this type of role a thousand times, and is still great as the increasingly stressed out mother.

Haley Lu Richardson makes her role of Krista easy to understand why Nadine care so much for her as her best friend while Blake Jenner is convincing as Darian, particularly during the scenes he shares with Steinfeld. The sibling relationship between the two is nicely developed and it pays off in a emotionally cathartic fashion that honestly made me shed a tear of two.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin. He completely sells the anxiety, awkwardness, the nervous tics and subtle longing, that I thought I was watching myself on screen. It was actually slightly scary, to be honest.

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As for flaws, there aren’t really that much, except for the story being slightly predictable once you see the pieces of the puzzle being set out. But the tropes are all dealt with nuance and subversiveness that the storytelling feels refreshing and new again.

Insightful, thoroughly well-written, amazingly well-acted, deservedly touching and downright hilarious, The Edge of Seventeen needs to be seen if we want to get more movies of this quality. Highly recommended!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Refreshingly honest approach to portraying teenage life

Fantastic performances from the cast, especially Hailee Steinfeld

Earns all of its emotional beats effortlessly

Easily subverts cliches of the teenage comedy genre

Hilariously acerbic and politically correct humour hit their targets

CONS

The story is quite predictable

SCORE: 9.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenwriter: Kelly Fremon Craig

Movie Review – Allied

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EXPECTATIONS: A film too old-fashioned for its own good.

REVIEW: Robert Zemeckis is a film-maker that has both enthralled me and frustrated me. For the most part, his films can be exciting, fun and incredibly well-told, like the Back to the Future films, Cast Away and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  On the contrary, his films at worst, can be quite corny and indulgent. Films like What Lies Beneath, his motion-capture films like The Polar Express and even the majority of his last film, The Walk are examples of that.

So when I heard that he was making a spy thriller that is reminiscent of the classic film Casablanca, from a script written by screenwriter Steven Knight, who wrote great films like Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things, I was psyched. And with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as icing on the cake, it sounds like it would be a sure-fire hit. Does Allied live up to its potential?

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Brad Pitt stars as Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer who is sent to Casablanca in French Morocco to assassinate the German ambassador. He is then teamed up with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who had escaped from war-torn France after her resistance group was defeated and killed. The plan is to pose as husband and wife as a cover-up until the actual date of the party where the ambassador is going to be. But during that time, the two gradually grow close and they are later both swept up in a sea of lies, secrets and deception that could put both of their lives at stake.

Like all of Zemeckis‘ films, they all look fantastic and have fantastic production values. The cinematography by Don Burgess is incredibly smooth and glowing with some great use of CGI that gives the film a sleek look that is very appealing to look at. Adding to that appeal is the costume design by Joanna Johnston, which is nostalgically striking. The musical score by Alan Silvestri is surprisingly a bit post-modern in its approach but it works, although it can be a bit intrusive at times during dramatic scenes.

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The actors certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with Brad Pitt and especially Marion Cotillard giving stellar performances. Pitt is convincingly stoic and world-weary and certainly looks the part of a debonair spy. Later in the film, he is also convincing when his character starts to emotionally open up as well as his character being anguished due to the fact that his wife may not be who she appears to be. This may not be his best performance in his so-called World War II trilogy (consisting of Inglourious Basterds and Fury), but it is still a good addition nonetheless.

As for Cotillard, she is the best asset in the film. She brings a lot of depth to her character of Marianne, while also pulling off the sensuality and allure of her character with aplomb. It is exactly those two traits that bring Pitt‘s character out of his shell and the two are good together as well as keeping the audience guessing about her character’s motives.

Nothing is more prevalent about the two and their shared chemistry like in the scene where the two make love in a car during a sandstorm. Although the leads are likable and worth caring for, they do not elicit the passion needed to make the romance truly blossom; leaving a bit of an emotional hole, where the heart should be.

The supporting cast are actually a bit wasted with their thin parts, like Lizzy Caplan as Vatan’s sister, who is written as an blatantly obvious lesbian but Simon McBurney is fantastic in his small role as the spy hunter; same as Jared Harris as Vatan’s superior and Matthew Goode in a surprise cameo.

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The storytelling is a bit of a letdown considering the talent involved. While the plot does unfold neatly enough, there are scenes where Zemeckis just overdoes the cliches (of the films Allied is meant to be referencing) with such blunt force, that the film becomes laughable at times. Some of it is definitely intentional (like the use of coarse language), but there are scenes that were clearly meant to be serious, but never feel that way; like a scene where Marianne is giving birth during an air strike.

But none of the cheesiness and corniness will matter negatively in the way the ending does. No matter how you analyze it or how it was built up on, the ending just comes across as anti-climactic and it will be a real letdown for some.

The talent involved really should have made Allied a fantastic film, but the final result only comes out as an entertainingly average experience. Still, we’ll always have Marion Cotillard.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Good leading performances, particularly from Marion Cotillard

Fantastic production values

Good storytelling and script from writer Steven Knight

CONS

Anti-climactic ending

Underused supporting cast

Scenes of corniness and cheesiness

SCORE: 6/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Betts, Marion Bailey, Matthew Goode
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Steven Knight

Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai