The only voice in The Musician is through the kamancheh, a traditional Persian string instrument. For a film of 14-minutes long, it necessitates itself to be told through montage, especially for a film with these ambitions. Director Reza Riahi uses paper cutouts to pay tribute to traditional Persian art. The entire stop-motion production was a three-month process with each character hand crafted and the background hand painted.
The results are a film that takes place over two separate time periods. In 13th century Persia, a musician is invited to the palace of the Mongols to play music. Through his music, he embraces the remembrance of his love from fifty years ago, long lost due to the invasion of the Mongols.
The film is beautiful with sumptuous visuals. Riahi was previously an art director with Cartoon Saloon, working on The Breadwinner. The film demonstrates ability in using silent film techniques to express so much through pantomime. Little animation details such as the musician fumbling, and shaking is beautifully detailed and animated. It is an impressive feat.
However, any hopes of expressing a greater message of war and oppression can only be surface level with such a short runtime. Everything about The Musician is unfortunately surface level. Montage alone can only do so much.
The Musician Trailer
The Musician is currently available to stream on Paramount+.
Walt Becker films fascinate me. The director of Old Dogs, Wild Hogs, and, of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, has always struck me as someone who has been able to differentiate himself from the forgettable fray of family friendly comedies destined to be played inoffensively on the back of an airplane headrest. Yet, Becker infuses his film with a gonzo sense of humor, which when mixed with his earnest sweetness might make his movies feel more at home with Troma than Disney. Truly, what makes him any more different than a faux provocateur director like Todd Phillips besides the fact that Becker has conviction in the films he makes and never decided to make a “prestige” picture.
That is not to say that Becker has made misunderstood masterpieces. He still has not gained a dedicated fan base touting his vulgar auteurist works the way that Tony Scott, Paul W.S. Anderson, and Jaume Collet-Serra have over the years. But, in any other hands, Clifford the Big Red Dog could have been a cynical cash grab instead of being the okay, slightly memorable children’s film that it is under Becker’s helm.
Clifford the Big Red Dog follows the basic premise of the much beloved children’s book series by Norman Bridwell. What if a little girl, Emily Elizabeth (Darby Camp) had a 25-foot dog? In this iteration, Emily is a bullied 12-year-old living with her single parent mother, scraping by paycheck to paycheck (insert hacky “But how do they afford their NYC apartment joke here”). While Emily’s mother is away, she is taken care of by Casey (Jack Whitehall), her layabout uncle. Emily, through silly circumstances, finds herself in possession of an unseemly red puppy, who either through love or magic grows into the giant-sized Clifford overnight.
Various forms of hijinks ensue. This is Clifford in New York City after all. The obstacle comes in the form of a game Tony Hale, who plays the head of a corporation who wants to make things big. Obviously, capturing Clifford would afford him the genetic testing to achieve that goal.
What distinguishes Becker’s films from others of his ilk is his distinct sincerity in what he is doing. Sure, there is the obligatory “rude humor” as the MPA likes to deem it through flatulence humor and balls to the… well balls. But Becker is able to infuse his movies with an earnest commitment to what he is doing – a message of found community.
That is why Becker took the care to construct a War Horse-esque puppet (stage version not the film version) for his actors to interact with. (Note to editor if you can attach a pic please do but if you feel it runs afoul of copyright obviously do not). It is that tactility that is able to give the film some sort of resonance above other family affairs. It also allows a legitimate good performance from Jack Whitehall, who anchors the film with a deft lightness in humor and warmth. If anything is a miscalculation, it would be Clifford’s appearance whose realistic fur and cartoony redness becomes an uncanny valley nightmare which makes the film look cheap.
Clifford is not a classic family film on its own. It is not going to garner the praise or devotees like the Paddington films. But Clifford does distinctly feel above the fray of other family films. This is not a cynical film nor is it a self-serious film. Walt Becker understood the assignment.
Clifford the Big Red Dog Trailer
Clifford the Big Red Dog is currently playing in theaters and streaming on Paramount+.
Before talking about Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty one has to mention the Danish film on which it’s based. Gustav Möller’s Den skyldige which translates to The Guilty, was submitted by Denmark for their Foreign Language Category at the Oscars in 2019. All that to say Fuqua isn’t remaking a poor film, one that perhaps needs it. Instead he with Netflix is retelling nearly the same story from 3 years ago absent any meaningful reason other than the original wasn’t in English.
Fuqua is coming off his worst film to date in May on Paramount+ he released Infinite. Which starred a checked out Mark Wahlberg opposite of a dialed in maniacal Chiwetel Ejiofor. Fuqua’s gone back and forth with hits and misses his whole career. Whether you measure from critical acclaim or actual dough at the box office. The Guilty is a return to form in that it’s fine. It dots i’s it crosses t’s. He puts a great actor in front of his camera and makes him work. Jake Gyllenhaal is game. Chewing on the darkness and wheezing his way through conversations to save a little girl at the other end of the phone line.
It’s all just a little thin though. I can’t quite believe the circumstances surrounding our character Joe Baylor played by Gyllenhaal. He’s supposedly a complex and ranging bad guy. I mean he is one of our “guilty” from the title, after all. But he seems heroic not just for moments but nearly the entire runtime. And when his ugly moments do come out he seems pathetic rather than responsible. There’s a tonal loss of control from the originals central character Asger Hold performed expertly by Jakob Cedergren and this rendition.
Instead of sticking to the tight, suffocating atmosphere that worked so well, Fuqua opts instead to constantly look out through the TV screens to fires raging in LA. His message, themes if you want to be courteous enough to call them that are worn on his knuckles. He’s trying to juggle a bunch of different issues that in his own words preceding the film he wants to bring attention to. Well unfortunately, bringing attention to things and doing a service to them are very different and though his heart may be in the right place his storytelling wasn’t.
The Guilty is at it’s best Gyllenhaal is bug eyed on the phone with Emily and Abby. Trying to help them be reunited safely. The brief moments Gyllenhaal’s Officer Baylor shares with Ethan Hawke’s no bullshit Sgt. Bill Miller ring as a revelation. Hawke as voice actor is superb. Venomous, witty, clever, and insightful all through his annunciation. Once casting directors see what he can do I suspect there will be a late career boom of Ethan Hawke voice acting.
Fuqua’s “one roomer” does little to build on its predecessor. But it doesn’t do it a disservice. The original is undeniably better, but I expect this rendition to be receive lots more eyes with the language shift. Undoubtedly one of the better Netflix Original films to come out this year.
One of my biggest regrets in movie-going was not seeing A Quiet Place in theaters when it was new. I was highly impressed when I did finally watch it and subsequently crushed that I didn’t see it in the best way possible. When the sequel was announced, I I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Then suddenly, a viral outbreak! Hope was dwindling for that dream but now here we are, in a state where it’s okay to go back to the theaters.
Story wise, it does a great job feeling like a direct continuation. John Krasinski returns as director and nicely balances the duties of expanding scope while retaining the elements of the first film. Visual storytelling is still prioritized and when there is direct exposition, it’s not forced. This movie is also more plot driven with a clear end goal. Personally I miss the Western-like atmosphere from before but that’s the most minor of complaints. It feels like a logical choice of direction and you’ll still find yourself plenty immersed in this danger-sensitive world.
And man is it ever dangerous! Tension is still well on-the point. There are more set pieces and they still scare even with added moving parts. The cinematography looks well in line with the first movie’s look, evoking moments of beauty and terror in the world on screen. Editing is also still great, letting shots linger enough to drive you to the breaking point. Visual effects are also great, with a key highlight being to see how more ruthless the creatures are in full rampage mode.
As you would expect though, the sound design is the main asset. Every sound effect and the overall use of sound is brilliant. Just like before, it takes most every opportunity to get clever with what’s heard and not. Marco Beltrami also returns on the score, bringing back old music cues while seamlessly integrating new tracks. There were times where the music was creeping me out as much as the visuals! Always a good sign.
Keeping everything held together is the acting, which is excellent as ever. Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds all return and keep making their characters all the more likable and interesting. Simmonds in particular really shines here, carrying a huge chunk of the story with magnetic screen presence. Cillian Murphy also kills it coming into this series with a damaged and vulnerable protagonist. Djimon Hounsou is reliable as well and even Krasinski does good in the brief time he’s here.
Add this to the list of sequels that stack up to their predecessor. A Quiet Place Part II deftly continues it’s story and ramps up the stakes without forgetting it’s identity. Any nitpicks I have boil down to personal preferences that I can live with not being there. It’s just as scary as it is dramatic, held up by great acting, visuals, and sound design. What a way to come back to the theaters!