Missing Link (2019)

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It has been 3 years since the engagingly rich and complex world of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. Laika are back again and this time they’re setting their hands on constructing the search for legendary creatures.

Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is a self-centred explorer and investigator of mythical monsters; in his hopes of joining an exclusive club, he sets out to find a Bigfoot. After finding this beast surprisingly fast, Frost comes to realise what a gentle and awkward giant Link (Zach Galifianakis) is. Together they trek the planet in the hopes that Link can find home with more of his kind.

Laika, as a studio, are a dream machine of stop-motion animation and this globe trotting adventure truly proves what a master of the arts they are. It’s their most light-hearted and comically toned outing yet and it is also true that a fair few of the aspects in ‘Missing Link’ are catered to children but it is a colourful and beautiful story to watch.

The hustle and bustle of London town to the wilds of America and India to the snow capped Himalayan mountains; this film provides many points on a whistle stop guide of the world. Each new setting is breathtaking and an astonishing feat of craftsmanship, that as a fan of stop-motion you cannot help but internally applaud. It isn’t just the backgrounds, the close up textures of fur or rosy red skin or the angular sharpness of Frost’s face show what fun Laika have in making distinguishing features for their movies.

This narrative tries incorporating humour into the film more than the depth or darkness found in the likes of ‘Coraline’ or ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, in a way it feels akin to the breezy style of Aardman Animation. The chuckles in this mostly come from the characteristics of the hairy Sasquatch and it is very kiddy but it has some mildly amusing graces.

The vocals from all involved, including the likes of Stephen Fry, Zoe Saldana and Emma Thompson are all spirited, bouncy and they lift this film with an extra boost of energetic delight. So, even if the film may not be memorable enough to last out until the end of the year, it’s light and fun enough to stick on in the future and gather round for an afternoon flick.

Sadly, Laika are in a financial sticky spot as of late, with their recent films not performing so well at the box office. Even if ‘Missing Link’ has tried to be more approachable and family friendly it hasn’t helped them which is a shame because it’s a charming jaunty movie. It’s too little and too late to say but please go watch Laika films and support them before we end up in a cinematic marketplace where the art of stop-motion has no place.

7.5/10

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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

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Whilst he still thinks the world is eagerly awaiting more ‘Avatar’ movies, James Cameron has produced and scripted this epic action environment based off a manga series. Robert Rodriguez is the director  and together you can feel both these guys’ influences soaking into the film.

A broken cyborg with an intact brain is found by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) in a junkyard pile, he christens her Alita (Rosa Salazar) and develops a new body for her to inhabit. As Alita learns about the world she starts trying to work out who she is and where she come from with the help of Hugo (Keean Johnson), but life won’t be so easy as everyone is out to kill her, led by the supposed orders of businessman Vector (Mahershala Ali).

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ spent a lot of time in development/production misery because of Cameron’s work on the sequels to the Na’vi world. Thankfully Rodriguez came on hand to get the product launched because though it often has just a smidge too much going on, it is a blast of enjoyable cyberpunk entertainment. The narrative may try and tackle too much and in terms of Alita’s progression, you only really grasp who she may be too late in the film as they strive for a follow-up but it’s a well realised dystopia and there’s a lot to catch and please the eye.

On the most part the graphic design is second to none, you can see that time was put into producing new effects especially for this movie and the appearance of the Battle Angel. The folk at Framestore, DNEG and Weta Digital have crafted a sprawling, bold world but have also honed in by showcasing wonderful minute details in the working of Alita’s reactions, drawn from both computer work and Salazar’s expressive performance. Every now and then there are some iffy cyborg-hybrid shots in battle but it is a mostly solid example of visual effects to terrifically build up a whole city and all its residents.

Alita as a character is engaging to watch and obviously her massive dinner plate eyes cannot help but draw you into her learning curve and training process. She is a formidable heroine apt with fighting styles and prone to get stuck into dangerous situations. The story keeps the pace at an agreeable speed never lulling and always making sure that Alita is no CGI damsel in distress, in fact along the way she subverts stereotypical saviour imagery and is a character I’m sure people would like to see again.

Along the way the story does feel bloated as it hopes to incorporate a whole load of plot points and it is no surprise that Cameron had to have his 186 page script whittled down, a lot of it still feels like it’s squeezing to find place in the movie. Aside from the less than focused narrative and a couple of laughable moments, this is an energetic buzz of action and silly fun and the set pieces are glorious; the best example being in the Motor Ball sequence which is a rip-roaring ride of crunches, sparks and skating carnage which you cannot help but revel in.

As a final product, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ could have done with a bit more refining but it has bundles of entertaining qualities and programmed with it is heart too, so much so that she takes it out and offers it up.

7/10

Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10

 

The Boy and the World (2013)

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One of the most interesting animations I have ever ever seen, this multi award winning Brazilian movie will stick with me for it’s refreshing originality, message and complexity. I only wish I’d seen it before now but at least I’ve seen it and I hope it reaches a wide audience because it deserves large viewer ship.

A young boy living in a house away from the hubbub of a fictional city with his mum and dad, sees his father leave by train one day. He keeps seeing his dad even when he’s not there so one day the child decides to board a train and try to reunite his family leading him to see more and more of the world.

Ale Abreu’s direction is near flawless; the decisions he makes in expanding this textural world are luscious and seamless. Each scene or new landscape is a transition of pure poetry with lines sprawling into the next white screen to create the next new location. He certainly knows how to direct an animation that speaks volumes even when there is no dialogue.

That’s the thing, with a film of next to no talking this film is rich and weighty and just sublime. There may be a couple of ideas in Abreu’s screenplay that lost me, whether it’s endless dads or the pre-ending home scene but all in all this is a cleverly written script that utilises on a rainbow world for children with grown up themes and very oppressing visuals and subtext to hit home for the adult watchers.

When moving on to the animation, it must be said that you’ve not seen anything like this before, almost guaranteed as we see ever growing worlds filled with technology, absurdity and newspaper cuttings mixed in with the hand-drawn like characters. It’s artwork is mesmerising, just the opening alone with it’s kaleidoscopic and hypnotising lines and swirls draw you into the bright world. A video game looking section as shipping containers get sucked into glass domes or the first train sequence filled with white rails and a black screen shuttling us into the city land are two further examples of how amazingly unique this film is.

Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat more than make this film too, with their engaging musical contribution. The festival atmosphere and harmonic singing from time to time is distinctive and then there’s the neat sound used. Accordions for car horns or clapping when rain hits the ground. It’s a film fascinatingly magical in colour and sound.

I must also comment on a moment when the cartoon burns and peels away, what an impacting surprise and though there’s been hints to the deep presence of life and Earth shattering changes before now, this is when we fully see one message of this film which raised hairs on my arm and neck. This film is political but not overly so that cute critters and colourful innocence still keep interest for the little watchers.

Apart from a tiny sprinkle of confusion and white screen pain this animation is sensational and I feel better for having watched such an interesting and vibrant story.

8.5/10