Brawl in Cell Block 99: Review

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I’m not entirely sure if I like grindhouse. The genre is an interesting time capsule into a particular brand of exploitation film, but at a certain point it’s hard for me to buy into the degree of sadism that is standard. However, leave it to the Craig Zahler and Vince Vaughn pairing to lend a certain degree of humanity to the over-the-top violence in Brawl in Cellblock 99.

Vaughn has completely transformed himself from a charismatic comedy actor, into a force of nature. His posture, size, and demeanor imply an unstoppable brutality underneath his cheeky southern charm, even before the punches begin to fly. Simply labeling Brawl in Cell Block 99 as a grindhouse film is slightly misleading, as it’s really divided into two halves. The first half is a drama turned crime thriller, propelled by the inevitability that Brad (sorry, Bradley) will end up in prison. The relationship between Bradley and his wife Lauren carries the slow-paced introductory portion. Although Bradley shows his simmering rage when he assaults his wife’s car with his bare hands, there is a compassion and warmth to him that makes his actions feel believable. He’s not just a stoic badass, but a flesh-and-blood person who is trying to help his family, however misguided his methods may be.

The hour of setup before the eventual flurry of violence is essential. Without it, we would only have an entertaining exercise in horrific action spectacle. But, thanks to the setup, Bradley’s fury is given a purpose, the protection of his family. After a menacing figure’s visit to his prison, Bradley descends into an increasingly medieval penal system. As his surroundings grow more cartoonishly oppressive, the fight sequences also increase in intensity. Vaughn’s physicality, combined with tightly composed brawls make for another entry in the “show the action” style film making. Whenever the violence ensues, we are treated to long-shots with minimal music, highlighting the carnage excellently. The grotesque body-horror that the genre is known for, combined with tightly framed, well-choreographed fights, makes for bouts where every punch is felt in between the cracking of broken bones. The skull-crushing that ensues is undeniably stomach-turning, but Vaughn’s latest turn as a serious actor makes the juxtaposition between drama and pulp work.

Rating: 4 Koalas out of 5    😦


Image credit: Film Bar

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My Top 10 Films of 2017 (So Far): 5-1

Link to Previous Post (10-6)

As I said in my previous entry, 2017 was a great year for movies. Here’s my (current) top 5 films of last year!

5. The Florida Project

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I’ve always held the belief that one of the most important aspects of movies is that they allow us to understand perspectives that we can never experience ourselves. They allow us to walk a mile in another person’s shoes as the clichéd adage goes. In my mind, few people are better at poking at the fringes of the American experience than Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, and now The Florida Project. The film takes place from the point of view of Moonee, a six-year-old living with her mother in a motel just outside of Disney World. Through a combination of realism-based child-acting, and Baker’s empathetic vision, the naïve wonder of this little girl’s life is presented with the delicacy of a fairy-tale. But Moonee’s idealism is constantly threatened by the realities of poverty that plague her and her young mother Halley. The underlying tragedy lies in the seeming inevitability of Moonee and her friend’s futures. There is the looming truth that their “playing” will eventually end and that they’ll be stuck in the same situation as their parents. In a year defined by hatred and condemnation of the “other” it’s important that compassionate films like this keep getting made.

4. Blade Runner 2049

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There is a grim beauty at the heart of all cyberpunk visions. The genre offers a depiction of the worst possible outcome of human achievement, tantalizing our imaginations with the sheer nightmare of it all. Ridley Scott largely defined the visual vocabulary of the genre when he adapted “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. Blade Runner’s imagery was the sort that would seer into your brain; the metal monoliths to our greed rising out of neon-lit smog clouds, the consistent flare of futuristic smoke-stacks outlining a haunting sky-line. We are quite lucky that the one to carry on that legacy was the Villeneuve and Deakins pairing, masters of capturing stark and grandiose images. Lingering scenes of irradiated hell-scapes tinged with an otherworldly orange, or the return to that iconic depiction of a futuristic Los Angeles deliver some of the most visually impressive science fiction landscapes ever conceived for the camera. Luckily 2049 not only gracefully accepts the handoff from its predecessor in the visual department, but also in terms of thematic content. This is primarily a love story, not only between two individuals, but towards humanity itself. While the first film was concerned with defining the bounds of humanity, the sequels expands on that inquiry. It depicts the innate longing for connection with others, the quest for purpose, and the desire to contribute towards the greater good.  At two and a half hours, the plot can occasionally feel as if it’s spinning off into rabbit holes, but it is always unified by that thematic cohesion. It’s enchantingly bleak and proof that there is still plenty of creativity to be found in the context of blockbuster films.

Link to my full review

3. Your Name

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It’s always nice when films that become cultural touchstones justify their popularity by also being pretty good. Your Name is a genre blending exercise that showcases the results of great screenwriting married to stellar visual execution. While at first glance the body-swap premise may seem a little trite, through layering allusions to Eastern ideology, and frequent small references that imply the true nature of what’s happening, this seeming contrivance becomes the driving force of the narrative. Shinkai has built his career on conveying a sense of longing, and his latest continues that tradition. Where this story differs from the rest of his oeuvre, is that that sense of longing is much more effectively conveyed. Taki and Mitsuha feel stuck in that particular adolescent rut of being on the precipice of the rest of their lives. They both seem to want what the other has, and only through experiencing the complexities of their counterpart’s lives are they able to understand the simplicity of their assumptions. As a whole, Your Name works as a charming rom-com, and also a compelling thriller, seamlessly threading between its two halves with a properly telegraphed twist. It’s rare that we get a piece of animation that is simultaneously so gorgeously realized and so well-written. If only Shinkai saw it that way.

Link to my Quick-Review

2. Dunkirk

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The more I think about Dunkirk, the more surprised I am that it was made. Here we have a multi-million dollar film that feels like it has more in common with Tarkovsky than its Saving Private Ryan inspired contemporaries. It speaks to Nolan’s cache as a director that he was allowed to create an exceedingly expensive movie with very little dialogue, and few big name actors attached. From its harrowing open, to the culmination of the greatest evacuation in history, we are given a work that exemplifies the mantra “Show, don’t tell”. Instead of inspirational speeches given at the base of landing grounds by a battle hardened Sergeant , we are instead assaulted with the visages of terrified young soldiers waiting to die. The performances are raw, understated things which seek to eliminate the filmic veneer of what we’re witnessing. While there are certainty moments of heroism, the focus is more on pure survivalism. These men communicate with grunts and glances, barely containing their bubbling fear as the noose tightening around their necks. Tom Hardy conveys more with his eyes than many actors can with their entire bodies. Hoyte Van Hoytoma’s cinematography captures the tension of combat without the traditional bombast, the staccato of gunfire, or the crash of bombs cutting through the monotony of waiting. Instead of frantic editing and shaky cams, we have deliberate shots of soldiers burying their heads into the sand as a German bomber circles overhead. Zimmer’s score forms a discordant assault of unsettling strings, using Shepherd’s Tone to constantly ratchet up the tension. With the Netflix and other streaming options encroaching upon the traditional movie-going experience, Nolan has delivered a film that simultaneously justifies the silver screen, and conveys the strength of the medium as a whole.

Link to my full review

1. Lady Bird

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The incredible contradiction at the heart of Lady Bird is that it feels both specific and universal. Coming of age is a well-worn genre, which has produced hundreds of similarly structured stories. Certain moments can be found in almost all of these tales; the idyllic beginnings of the first relationship, attempts at becoming popular,  reaching self-acceptance, and so-on. While Lady Bird has many of these moments, it feels distinct because the events it depicts feel truly lived, instead of idealized nostalgia. A great example of this is the roller-coaster of her first breakup, which is delivered in a near-montage. It documents the various lows on the path to recovery with an empathetic warmth, while also acknowledging emotional distance provided by the passage of time. This sequence is a microcosm for the entire experience of watching Lady Bird, it summarizes these defining moments in with a caring touch than transcends expectations. Certain lines have such degrees of emotional truth, that I find them still rattling around in my brain. There are pangs of authenticity in the ridiculousness of our lead, charmingly played by Saoirse Ronan, and her quest to differentiate herself from the alleged drones of Sacramento. While few can claim to having been as eccentric as Lady Bird, each scene places us in her head space in a way that conjures similar experiences in our own pasts. Each character that pops up into the story, however briefly, feels the full breadth of Greta’s sympathetic recollection. For the most part, these people never feel judged, and their pain is weighted equally as that of our lead. These loving vignettes are tied together through the depiction of the tumultuous relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, played by Lauri Metcalf. It’s a fiery and ambiguous relationship, conveying the love that lies at the heart of the emotional trauma. For Greta to have made her directorial debut with such a deeply affecting and thoroughly funny picture was among the most pleasant surprises of 2017.


Image Credits: Hollywood Reporter  |  Destructoid   |   Indiewire   |  Den Of Geek   | Movie Hole

Phantom Thread: Review

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With the Phantom Thread, one of the film industry’s premier talents has further proven his ability to create a uniquely confounding, dense, and singular work. Initially it appears to be a have the trappings of a love story. But as the warning signs compound, and the hidden inclinations of our leads begin to surface, we come to realize that their relationship is both complex, and thoroughly weird.

Taking place in post-WW2 London, Phantom Thread begins when a renowned dress maker named Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, courts his new love Alma. Anderson has once again created a film filled with characters that simultaneously feel larger than life and intricately human.

Unsurprisingly Day Lewis’ performance fits this description, but his co-star Vicky Krieps matches him blow for blow, handily standing her ground against one of the most renowned living actors. Considering that Lewis learned how to sew a Balenciaga sheath dress from scratch for the purpose of his method acting, this is no small feat.

And it’s important that she does, as Phantom Thread is largely about the cost of toxic masculinity. Instead of just being another story in which a woman is victimized, Alma refuses to bow to Reynold’s increasing callousness, resulting in a escalating tension between the two that eventually explodes into outright insanity.

Similar to how There Will be Blood’s characters felt symbolic of broader ideas, Reynolds feels like a representation of the extemes of the male ego. He treats his lovers like dolls, dressing them up and warping their every inclination to his tastes. He uses his power imbalance to keep them submissive, and when he grows tired of them, he moves on to the next victim. As the Me Too movement reaches a fever pitch, it’s hard to imagine a film that better encapsulates the nature of these power imbalances that leads to manipulation, bullying, and the mistreatment of woman in Hollywood and elsewhere.

While the comparisons to There Will Be Blood are certainly well-founded, this film is much more willing to poke fun at the absurdity of its protagonist. To capture the silliness of his constant agitation, there is a scene where the foley work for eating toast is translated into an auditory assault to capture his sense of paltry annoyance. Similarly, there are also many moments of visual humor to capture Reynold’s eccentricity.

The changes in mood and highs and lows of their relationship are represented by the compositions as well as the actors. A romantic medium shot painted against a moody bluff, our protagonists filling the frame with their affections for one another. Tension filled breakfast and dinner scenes that turn increasingly sinister, their faces in full frame to broadcast every subtle turn of the conversation or the silent tension.

And all the while Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack provides a consistent barrage of strings and brass, which compliment the peaks and valleys of our characters, wrapping the picture in an air of sinister bourgeoisie.

Paul Thomas Anderson movies, especially the contemporary ones, all lend themselves to a certain ambiguity that invites multiple viewings and readings. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around the ending) It’s hard not be swept up in the well-articulated strife of this relationship. It feels as though we are in the hands of a seasoned master who is at the height of his craft, capturing every granular detail necessary to convey his vision. While it could be largely described as a chamber drama, it demands to be seen on the big screen due to the grandeur of many of its compositions and moments.

Rating: 5/5

Image credit: https://filmschoolrejects.com/phantom-thread-trailer/

My Top Films of 2017 (So Far): 10-6

As it turns out, last year was a pretty good year for movies. We had plenty of outstanding genre-fare, which pushed boundaries in ways that forced the the major award ceremonies to pay attention. As always, there were plenty of surprising and weird indies and foreign films pushing boundaries in other ways. Even as the market becomes increasingly inundated with comic book movies, there were still a couple of outstanding big budget hits.

I’ve been paying much more attention to films big and small as of late, and as a result I have a pretty huge backlog.

Here’s some shout outs to films that are high on my to-watch list: The Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, Faces Places, Personal Shopper, A Silent Voice, and a link to the rest.

Honorable mentions: Baby Driver, Okja, Three Billboards, A Ghost Story, and Wonder Woman

And without further ado, let’s get into the top 10.

10. The Shape of Water

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I love being able to root for Del Toro. The fantastical visionary’s latest works as an interesting combination of fairy tale love story and take down of Cold War era Americana. It glides from scene to scene, riding on a wave of ephemeral fuzziness thanks to its snappy editing and woozy camera work. Sally Hawkins wordlessly steals the show through perfectly communicating the sensation of longing, while Richard Jenkins’s neighbor character offers endearing comic relief. More than just a love story, The Shape of Water works as a riveting tale about discrimination, and how hatred of the other; whether that’s minorities, the disabled, gays, Ruskies, or fish men, is endemic to America. But despite rampant hatred, it’s not those forces that will prevail. It’s film in which the love of its creator can be felt in every frame.

9. I, Tonya

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The truth can often be a murky fickle thing, and in our quest to find easy answers we often take things at face value. If Tonya Harding’s side of the story is true, then her saga is an extreme example of how assumptions can unjustly upend a lifetime of dedication. Filmed in mockumentary style, I Tonya is a biting biopic that redefines the traditionally sappy and aggrandizing nature of the sub-genre. Fueled by some of the best performances of the year by Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, the darkly comic script manages to find some humor in a dismal set of affairs, without undercutting the drama. It’s utterly heart-wrenching, impressively filmed, and interested me in a type of film that I usually bounce off of.

Review link

8. Get Out

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When discussing movies it’s easy to get bogged down in conversations about the “most important film” of the year. Major award ceremonies almost always get absorbed in these sorts of questions, resulting in situations like when Spotlight triumphed over the greatest action spectacle ever produced, Mad Max Fury Road. I imagine this is at least partially the case because the panels of judges are made up of people whose lives are dedicated to cinema, and thus would like to see the choices for movie of the year reflect the importance of their medium. Get Out is a rare film that manages to split the difference between being “important”, and just being a really well plotted genre film. In a year dominated by prejudice and hate speech, Jordan Peele gave a voice to those who could feel the thinly veiled bite of racism hidden under the veneer of socially acceptable behavior. He put to work his years of comedy writing and understanding of satire to creating a movie that somehow manages to be both scary and hilarious at the same time. Every line and scene has purpose, layers and layers of foreshadowing building a sense of dread and inevitability. Could this be the year a horror movie wins Best Picture? Get Out may not be my singular favorite of the year but I can’t help but root for it.

Review link

 

7. The Last Jedi

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In my opinion, there is still no franchise that succeeds at conveying a sweeping cinematic tale of good and evil quite like Star Wars. Although the film has proven to be extremely divisive, I found Johnson’s focus on the failings of its characters to be an interesting change of pace. The portrayal of Luke is particularly striking; our previous hero consumed with grief and regret. The dynamic between Rey and Kylo is similarly arresting, showcasing the acting chops of Driver and Ridley. And importantly, it hits its grandiose moments with a sense of poise and aplomb, delivering some of the most striking and memorable scenes the franchise has ever seen. Although it’s form has changed in many ways it feels as though the spirit of Star Wars has been kept alive. It’s distillation of the Hero’s Journey continues to spread one of the most universal stories told through our history, filtered through its own specific weirdness that has so thoroughly dissolved into the culture that we don’t really consider how odd it is anymore. While at its core it’s a simple tale of good and evil, its messages about hope in the face of absolute despotism continues to resonate.

Review link

6. Raw

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*Spoilers ahead*

You would think the consumption of human flesh would be something that couldn’t possibly enter even the proximity of humor. The odd thing about Raw, Julia Decournau’s horror coming of age mashup, is that it wrings a certain absurdism out of its nightmarish premise. Raw pulls no punches, depicting a hellish descent into hazing, the pressures of conformity, and college hedonism with non-distanced realism. When it finally takes its abrupt turn, the fact that it can be tracked to an allegory about growing up doesn’t even remotely lessen the following relentless assault on basic human decency. While many movies would cash in on it’s concept for pure shock value, Raw transcends this, providing horrific thrills backed by the universal nature of growing up. It’s powerful moments are ore senses with surprisingly confident film making for a freshman effort. From it’s excellent musical accompaniments which help deliver essential moments such as the pivotal turn, and a sexual awakening, to it’s lingering body horror shots, I was simultaneously disgusted and intrigued from start to finish.

*End of spoilers*

There’s the first half of the list, the rest should be up in the next week or so!

The Last Jedi: Review and Rebuttal

*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*

The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.

Star Wars means a lot to a lot of people. In many ways, it’s the perfect film portrayal of the Hero’s Journey, summarizing hundreds of years of myth into the story of how a farm boy makes a stand against the seemingly unstoppable machinations of evil. The original trilogy is full of some of the most eminently likable and recognizable characters to ever appear on screen, and is bursting with a warm oddball spirit. It may be it simple tale of good and evil, but it’s rendered with the sort of grand cimematic gestures that drew so many to the medium in the first place.

After a dismal set of prequels, J.J. Abrams and Disney brought the series back with what felt like a near-perfect emulation of the original’s charm. Arguments that The Force Awakens was too safe certainly have validity, but that made its follow-up all the more tantalizing. With the first film in their new trilogy a success, the franchise was set up for sequel that could take more risks, and define a new course for the series.

Despite the fact that it has proven to be one of the most divisive mass market films in recent memory, even the naysayers can’t deny that The Last Jedi deviates from the blueprint of the original trilogy.

Rian Johnson blasts almost of the dangling plot threads from the previous film out of an airlock, destroying droves of fan’s preestablished head-canon. Apparently this is where my opinion on the film seems to deviate from much of the fan base, as the reality of Rey’s backstory is far more interesting, tragic, and human than the seemingly obvious answer of a Skywalker lineage. Perhaps even more importantly, it breaks from the series’ obsession with royalty and chosen ones, cementing that bloodlines don’t define us.

Another sticking point for many fans is that The Last Jedi is a film much more concerned with progressing its characters than progressing its plot. We see a broken Luke, consumed by his grief and obsession with his own failings. Rey must come to terms with her power, and learn what being a Jedi means. Poe has to learn how to not be a self-destructive action hero. Finn needs to internalize why the rebels fight. And of course Kylo seemingly continues to struggle between his good and evil inclinations.

Some of these arcs are handled better than others, but the ones that work soar. Luke’s bitter cynicism and world-weariness offer us a glimpse of the possibility of what happens to the unstoppable hero after their triumphant victory. His interactions with his mentor and reconciliation of his failures are stand out scenes.

The development of Rey and Kylo’s relationship is a welcome surprise, tethering two of the film’s most charismatic actors in scenes absolutely oozing with tension. Kylo’s backstory paints him as a tragic villain, allowing him to fully embrace the dark side without becoming a simple caricature of evil.

Against the backdrop of a rebellion on its last legs, we are given some of the most powerful images the series has ever produced. Luke, embodying the dwindling flicker of hope in a universe being crushed under the unyielding boot of totalitarianism, emerges from decades of exile. The rebels slowly rise out of their trenches in awe at the arrival of the hero. Luke facing down his mistakes, his past, and reaches self acceptance.

Poe’s ill-advised bombing run, and the tremendous loss of life it inflicts is depicted in brutal detail. Holdo’s sacrifice is an arresting sequence that works as a perfect counterpoint to Poe’s actions.

Luke and Yoda reunited, gazing at a burning tree on a long abandoned monument to their orders ‘s beginning. The very symbol of what many Star Wars fans seem incapable of doing, moving on from the past. All in all, these moments can live proudly among many of the series other triumphs.

Johnson also manages to slip in a bunch of lines that work as some clear commentary on the dilemma of making a new Star Wars film. When Kylo screams at Rey to let go of the past, he is also addressing the audience, affirming that for the franchise to continue it needs to deviate from the formulas of the past.

These disparate character arcs and moments are tied together through the thematic cohesion that can be found in many of the arcs. The notions of accepting and moving past failure, breaking from bloodlines as well as the past, and the act of defining true heroism echo throughout the different plot lines, mostly succeeding in unifying what could have been a total mess.

Still it’s tremendous highs are somewhat dragged down by some rocky patches. The writing can frequently be too quipy, undercutting the dire circumstance. The Rose/Finn subplot could have been cut in its entirety, and some parts of the Canto Bight casino story are actively bad. It feels a little overlong, especially on subsequent viewings.

But as I continue my journey into increasingly weird and specific cinema, it’s good to know that the film franchise that largely got me interested in movies in the first place still resonates. Its comforting that in the galaxy far, far away there are still plucky Rebel scum that refuse to let the space-fascists win.

Rating: 4.5/5

Author’s note: Also for the record I’m pro-Porg.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Quick Review

As Ghibli prepares for its (alleged) final release, the torch has been passed to the recently formed Studio Ponoc. Created in 2015 as Miyazaki and Takahata announced their retirement and the eventual shuddering of their legendary animation studio, Ponoc is made up of many ex-Ghibli employees who have sought to carry on the legacy of their parent studio.

With their debut picture, Ponoc has proven that the spirit of Ghibli is mostly alive and well, realizing much of the magical charm and heartfelt optimism that its predecessor studio was famous for. The animation and visual design are gorgeously realized, keying in on that very particular Ghibli character design which produces fantastical and singular images. From Endor College, which evokes a sense of idiosyncratic charm and vague threat, to the lived in English village, Ponoc delivers a truly beautiful feat of animation. Additionally, the dub work here is quite fantastic, with Ruby Barnhill’s (BFG) performance as Mary stealing the show.

However, the emulation of Ghibli feels less complete when it comes to the narrative. It’s not that there aren’t a plethora of similarities to be found; Mary is a charming protagonist, and there are attempts a morally ambiguous villain. The overriding issue here is that the dramatic content just isn’t particularly affecting. When it hurls into the last act, and the fate of a secondary character is on the line, it simply doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of suspense, because the character in peril hasn’t been given enough screen time. The overriding theme of Mary attempting to achieve self-acceptance similarly doesn’t feel as fleshed out as it could.

While the final act doesn’t exactly work, there are enough endearing bit characters and fun little interactions to transition between its visually impressive set pieces. In a world where 2D animation is quickly dissapearing from the silver screen, it turns out that’s enough.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

Your Name: Quick Review

 

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I’m always looking for something, someone.

Working as a unlikely combination of a fun body swap rom-com and a harrowing thriller, Kimi No Na Wa’s tonal shift hits with the weight of a freight train. It successfully engenders so many fleeting feelings; nostalgia, longing, and the fickleness of memory are all given a fading dreamlike quality.

The film will also certainly work as a time capsule, distilling the initial disconnect between Japan’s rich past with its westernized modernity through its two leads. The absolutely stellar background art brings the rural countryside and the bustle of Tokyo to life, highlighting the difference of circumstance for Mitsuha and Taki. However, as the film progresses, we the differences between these two regions begins to fade. This is represented by the excellent visual metaphor of the Shoji, or traditional Japanese sliding doors, equating with the sliding doors of subway trains. Despite all of the differences, there is beauty in both rural and urban life.

In addition to its visual brilliance and deft tone management, the screenplay reminds me of another outstanding 2017 release, Get Out. Much like Peele’s Get Out, Shinkai takes an inherently absurd concept, and makes it plausible through subtly introducing rules, metaphors, and constant foreshadowing. For a movie about mostly unexplained body swapping and time travel, we are treated to a case of Chekhov’s arms stache (sorry), with each twist and story beat unfolding naturally from the last.

It’s not hard to see why this film has been such a financial success, it combines a novel concept with tight screen writing, incredible visual execution that takes advantage of its medium’s strengths, and wraps it in an empathetic ode to the experience of growing up. It is jam packed with interesting cultural details, which serve to reveal little nuggets of eastern ideology. It’s a triumph for anime, and film-making in general.

Rating: 5/5