Writer: Henry Selick, Clay McLeod Chapman, Jordan Peele
Starring: Lyric Ross, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Angela Bassett, James Hong, Ving Rhames
Henry Selick may not be a household name in the same way that Hayao Miyazaki or Pete Docter or Brad Bird are, but his contributions to animated films can’t be denied. I still remember a room full of shocked faces when the answer to a trivia question announced that Tim Burton did not direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. Whenever Disney gets too cutesy with a few too many animal sidekicks, Selick manages to come back with something of a polar opposite. That he does so by pushing the stop-motion animation medium forward each time just goes to show how different the animation world would be without him.
Unlike previous entries in this series, I’m going to kick things off with the second chronological episode this time, Asian Population Studies. Not because I believe it’s superior to Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, but more close to the contrary. Whereas Christmas is one of the show’s best episodes ever, Asian Population Studies doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. It’s a perfectly fine (and funny!) episode that comes at the midpoint of the season; it just so happens to be amongst a sea of knockout episodes that would go on to be much more memorable.
Writer: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson, and Ian Stokell
Starring: Felix Kammerer, Daniel Brühl, Albrecht Schuch, Moritz Klaus, Aaron Hilmer, Edin Hasanovic
War is hell. It always has been, and it always will be. Whether you’re a Spartan fighting against the Trojans, or a colonialist seeking your independence from the British, or a German slumming through the trenches in France, one thing remains constant in war: those that fight always lose. You don’t need a multi-million dollar Netflix production to tell you that. You don’t necessarily need to remake Erich Maria Remarque’s novel – a version of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1930 – either. Indeed, it’s the biggest question for director and co-writer Edward Berger: why did All Quiet on the Western Front need to be made?
One of the great things about comics, especially comics about long-standing characters, is seeing how individual talents can bring their own individual voice to territory that’s familiar to all. Publishers like DC and Marvel have so many long-standing characters, but they regularly invite artists to create their own arcs, regardless of how it upends the canon. Lego and Ninjago may not have as much of a cultural footprint as Superman or Iron Man, but they’ve had enough output across TV and movies (lest you forgot, The Lego Ninjago Movie only came out five years ago) to have a solid reputation and established characters.
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ethan Hawke, Maribel Verdú, Sophie Okonedo
Remember how it felt the first time you watched The Hangover? It was the type of comedy where anything was possible, where the screenwriter was free to make up whatever kooky shenanigans they could think of simply because the action had unfolded off-screen. Raymond and Ray feels like the dramatic equivalent of that kind of storytelling, a free-for-all experiment where everyone simply talks about someone we never actually meet first-hand. It feels like an acting exercise, and an empty one at that, where its primary cast mostly makes it out unscathed.
Memory is a funny thing sometimes. In some cases, it can conflate how you remember a certain moment – or, in this case, an episode of television – and sometimes, you can still pinpoint an emotion and flash back to how you reacted to something 12 years ago. Both come into play with how I remembered this week’s installments. In the former, we have Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design, and in the latter, Mixology Certification. Both are excellent episodes of Community, and both stand in the upper echelon of the show at large, for vastly different reasons.
It’s always refreshing to see a film about grief – a subject that’s entirely too popular today – that approaches its subject in a unique and interesting way. Juniper is one of those films. It centers on Mack (Madison Lawlor) as she retreats to her family’s cabin after the recent and unexpected death of her younger sister Natalie. Unbeknownst to her, her childhood friend Alex (Decker Sadowski) – a party girl who lives freely without worry – and Alex’s best friend from college Dylan (Olivia Blue) show up to support her. While Mack appreciates the gesture, she clearly wants to grieve in her own way, in her own time, but Alex doesn’t seem to get the hint. Old conflicts resurface, along with new ones, and the film poses an interesting question: is there a right or a wrong way to grieve? First-time director Katherine Dudas directs the film with an intimacy that’s befitting the subject matter, and the dialogue feels improvisational but impactful. The screenplay is credited to the three above-mentioned actresses and Dudas, which suggests each performer was given the freedom to write their own dialogue, and their confidence in their characters’ inner lives easily comes through in the final product. That Juniper is Dudas’ directorial debut shows an even greater confidence in and familiarity with her collaborators.
Speaking of confidence, it’s a trait that Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game has in spades, sometimes to great effect, and sometimes not. It’s the true story of Roger Sharpe, an aimless young man trying to find purpose in his life. As you might have guessed, his passion is pinball, which just so happens to be illegal in New York in the 1970s. Mike Faust (West Side Story) portrays Roger as a kind of lovesick puppy; it’s not that Roger is a pinball prodigy per se, he just can’t see himself doing anything else. His paths cross with Ellen (Crystal Reed) and their romance is a nice highlight to an otherwise boilerplate David versus Goliath story. First-time writers and directors Austin and Meredith Bragg clearly have a reverence for Roger’s story, and it comes through in the film’s framing device, where the real-life Roger breaks the fourth wall and essentially narrates his own story. It’s a charming conceit that will likely work for most but came off as forced more often than not to me. Still, it’s a harmless good time and provides some authentic emotional resonance.
Two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic and we’ve already gotten our fair share of fiction and nonfiction films about the early months of 2020. Bad Axe is another of those films, but poignantly told first-hand through the eyes of director David Siev’s family. The film begins as the first lockdowns were ordered, and David’s family’s restaurant – which his sisters help run – is thrown into turmoil and uncertainty. David also digs into his father’s traumatic upbringing in Cambodia’s Killing Fields and how his immigration to the US has shaped how he runs his family, for better and worse. But as if being a restaurant owner during the pandemic is difficult enough, the business sits in the titular Michigan town, in the heart of Trump country, which begins treating the Siev family differently. From the BLM protests to the mask mandates, David’s family, especially sister Rachel, remain outspoken even if it means alienating themselves further and risking their business. The film could use some narrative cohesion, but otherwise it’s hard to find many faults with such an honest portrayal of a subject the director is obviously close to. This is a tight-knit family that you can’t help but root for.
Bad Axe will premiere as a Special Presentation courtesy of IFC Films at the Heartland Film Festival on October 15 at 2:45pm. Buy a ticket here.
No matter how you look at it, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945 was a horrific tragedy. Whether you’re Japanese or American or German or any other nationality, there’s an inherent sadness when so many lives are lost in an instant. But watching Paper City as an American, there’s an extra tinge of regret, because it was a catastrophe that was needlessly executed. The documentary explains in the opening moments that the American military had ceased the targeting of Japanese military locations and had begun randomly targeting civilians. One hundred thousand people were senselessly and horrifically killed, and the documentary seeks to tell the stories of the few living survivors, and their crusade to hold the Japanese government accountable. Director Adrian Francis rightfully keeps the focus on the survivors as they fight to not only erect any kind of monument to the event, but receive reparations from the government for what they perceive as an avoidable tragedy. Paper City could have expanded beyond its 80 minute runtime by exploring the government’s reluctance to acknowledge the survivor’s plight, or the views of a younger generation that didn’t experience the trauma firsthand, but regardless, this is an emotionally impactful documentary.
Sentenced is a documentary that will open your eyes to an aspect of life that most of us take for granted, and for that, it’s an achievement. If you’re able to read this review, you live amongst the majority of Americans that the film speaks to. It’s an eye-opening look at a failure of the American system that we don’t speak often enough of, and it does so with a heart and tenderness that’s sorely needed. Directors Mark Allen Johnson and Connor Martin portray the daily lives of American adults that struggle with literacy in an intimate, often heartbreaking way. How they got to where they are today is often a result of horrific trauma or, in some cases, simple neglect from their parents or educators. At only 69 minutes, the film could do better to deeply explore the American systems that failed them, but its mere existence should be a clarion call for action or, at the very least, empathy.