And the alternative awards go to…


Since it’s awards season, I thought I would come up with a few of my own.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A familiar script and conventional special effects would not be a recipe for success these days, but combined with some earnest acting we had the most satisfying movie of the year. Full credit to director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy for figuring out the pulse of the audience.

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Best opening scene

Bridge of Spies

The wordless opening sequence shows Russian spy Rudolf Abel start the day by putting the finishing touches on a self-portrait in his cramped apartment, then step out and walk through the streets of 1950s Brooklyn on his way to a rendezvous. The lighting and composition in those few minutes in the apartment can be a visual textbook for any student of filmmaking. And you already see why actor Mark Rylance deserves that Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Best ending scene

Youth 

Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducts a performance of his Simple Songs, sung by Korean soprano Sumi Jo.

Phoenix

Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings Speak Low and her husband slowly realizes who she is; the phoenix has risen from its ashes.

Danny Collins

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) and his son (Bobby Cannavale) wait for the doctor’s verdict.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) playful emotional blackmail almost works as his two daughters choose a play date over his offer to go boating on a beautiful day

Most disturbing/ unresolved ending

Z for Zachariah

John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ann (Margot Robbie) lose their innocence in the garden of Eden

Best post-credits scene

Dope

Shameik Moore shows us his moves to The Humpty Dance by the Digital Underground. Pharrel Williams and Sean Combs were executive producers for this delightful coming-of-age dramedy.

Most horrifying scene

Agu’s (Abraham Attah) first kill (Beasts of No Nation)

Most emotional moment

Rocky confronts his own mortality in Creed

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldanha break down as they try to figure out their lives towards the end of Infinitely Polar Bear

Best dance sequence

Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno boogie to Get Down Saturday Night in Ex Machina.

Best action sequence

Everything in Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything in Sicario

Everything in The Revenant

Best single shot

Adonis Creed and his team enter the ring for his title fight against Ricky Conlan; the camera follows them from the back room through the corridor into the packed stadium. Goosebumps.

Most disappointing character

Captain Phasma from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best (wordless) introduction to a character

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge of Spies

Most over-the-top characters

Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Coma-Doof Warrior played by Australian musician iOTA (Mad Max: Fury Road); check out the montage of scenes below

Best dialogue

Far From the Madding Crowd

“I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband!”

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Best songs

Straight Outta Compton (songs by NWA)

Best color palette

The Danish Girl 

DP Danny Cohen captures the beauty of the Dutch skies and architecture while set decorator Michael Standish, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Paco Delgado skillfully coordinate the interior look (all 3 have been Oscar-nominated)

The Man from UNCLE

Costume designer Joanne Johnston and set decorator Elli Griff bring to life a glorious Italian summer by clothing their glamorous stars in 60s’ high fashion

Youth

DP Luca Bigazzi juxtaposes the cool beauty of the Swiss Alps and the opulence of a luxury resort against the barren lives of its residents

Most ubiquitous male actor

32-year-old Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson seemed to be everywhere this year. He played the naïve programmer who stumbles onto a dark secret in Ex Machina, the evil but needy General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the well-meaning commander of an ill-fated hunting party in The Revenant and the attractive Rugby player who steals Saoirse Ronan’s heart in Brooklyn. He is the son of veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson. Harry Potter fans may remember him as the oldest Weasley son Bill from the last 2 films.

Most ubiquitous female actress

27-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is one of the most talented young actresses around today. She was an eerily sentient robot in Ex Machina, portrayed British pacifist Vera Brittan in Testament of Youth and played sassy East German auto mechanic turned spy Gaby Teller in the big-budget revival of The Man from UNCLE. She ended the year with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, the Dutch painter who stood by her husband during his tragic transgender journey. She also had a supporting role in the little seen Bradley Cooper flop Burnt.

Important films

Irrespective of the level of critical acclaim, entertainment value or filmmaking quality (all of which are very good), I consider these 3 films to be essential viewing for their subject matter

Spotlight 

The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered widespread cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the efforts by the Church to protect the offenders. This documentary-style, no frills movie features pitch-perfect acting. The lack of melodrama makes the story even more hard-hitting.

Beasts of No Nation

Set in a West African country torn by civil war, this is a fictitious account of a how a young boy is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier. Loss of innocence on every level. This movie features mainly non-actors (plus a brilliant Idris Elba) and at times is unwatchable for the real-life horror it puts on screen.

Suffragette

Set in the middle years of the suffragette movement, this is the story of a laundry shop worker (Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the cause by sheer chance. As her involvement grows, her husband throws her out and she undergoes many physical and mental trials; all of which further strengthen her resolve. Although a work of fiction, it showcases the ridiculous attitudes that existed towards women’s rights in the early 1900s.

The 2015 summer movie score-card: And the winner is…


Well, the summer officially finished a few weeks ago and the big winner has been Universal Studios, with Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2 and Straight Outta Compton. Disney as always was a strong performer with animation and Marvel properties Inside Out, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. And ranked 3rd was Warner Bros. with San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road.

After kicking off my summer viewing with the Avengers sequel, I had listed 10 other films that I wanted to watch over the remaining 4 months. Technically, I didn’t complete my mission, because found Tomorrowland to be unwatchable after about 20 minutes. I mentally swapped that movie for Inside Out in my list, but will only be watching that this weekend.

Nevertheless, here are those 11 films ranked on my intuitive sense of which movie I would be willing to go back to theatre to watch, or would stay tuned to watch if it was running on TV. I’ve put the Metacritic scores next to each film, as a point of comparison and linked to my individual posts on each movie.

#1 Mad Max: Fury Road (89) – My #1 movie of the summer, this was always guaranteed to be a dazzling visual treat, but what surprised critics and viewers like me was the depth of the characterization. I really hope there will be another film in the series, and that Charlize Theron is in it. Tom Hardy was almost incidental as Max!

#2 Jurassic World (59) – Yes, the third act became too generic, but the first two-thirds of the film including the set-up, the new characters and the new dinos all made it worthwhile. Newbie director Colin Trevorrow was rewarded with a Star Wars directing gig for 2019, but before that it’s very likely he will be involved in the next Jurassic movie, scheduled for June 2018.

#3 Ant-Man (64) – This was the doubtful Marvel entry that ended up being unexpectedly enjoyable. Everything just clicked somehow. Worth watching again just for Michael Pena and his ‘tip montages’.

#4 Avengers: Age of Ultron (66) – This is one of those movies that is really enjoyable when you watch it, but sort of fades from memory towards the end of the season as it gets crowded out by more innovative or enjoyable fare. Once again, the first two-thirds had some real emotional heft, but it descended into action CGI overload in the last half hour.

#5 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (75) – Not quite as enjoyable as the previous entry Ghost Protocol, but still strong enough to set up a possible 6th film in a couple of years.

#6 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (55) – This smart and extremely stylish thriller sadly never found its market, although it’s possible that it may thrive on TV and Home Video. Even so, hopes of starting a franchise are surely dead. Elizabeth Debicki plays one of the most deliciously evil on-screen villains I’ve seen in years.

#7 Furious 7 (67) – Having kicked off the early summer and riding on the Paul Walker sympathy wave to a record high box office for the franchise, it now seems rather generic with the benefit of a few months of hindsight. The producers have still not locked down a director for Furious 8 although they have announced a release date in April 2017.

#8 Entourage (38) – I thought the Metacritic score was a bit harsh. What were critics expecting from the big-screen version of a ‘guilty pleasure’ show like this? Impossible to watch on big screen with all the nudity and language, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending a 100 minutes with Vince and the boys.

#9 Fantastic Four (27) – Another film at the receiving end of an unfair Metacritic score, this is the movie that critics loved to hate; after all its own director hated it as well!

#10 Terminator: Genisys (38) – This film was a big disappointment vis-à-vis the promise of the first trailers and the strong cast of Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke and the returning Arnold. But eventually it just turned out to be a product of lazy scriptwriting that just took events from the first 2 films and shuffled the characters and the situations around in the name of time travel paradox. What a wasted opportunity.

#11 Tomorrowland (60) – Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, because this was from one of my favorite directors who has not put a foot wrong in his career; Brad Bird, the man who made The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I started watching this on a flight and had to switch off after 20 minutes because every character on screen was so irritating and the story seemed muddled and pointless. Is this what happens when a filmmaker becomes so successful that a studio will allow him to make whatever he wants? Feels like the misstep that M. Night Shyamalan made with The Village and Lady in the Water passion projects. I sure hope Brad Bird comes out of this one.

I imagine Inside Out will rank in the Top 5 after I see it on Sunday. Other fun movies during the April-August period included San Andreas, Ex Machina, Minions, The Age of Adaline and Woman in Gold.

Now, on to more serious fare in the next few weeks; Everest was absolutely worth the IMAX ticket prices. Next in line will be Sicario, Black Mass and The Martian.

Miller delivers a visual knockout with Mad Max: Fury Road


In the rarified world of visually-oriented septuagenarian directors, George Miller (he just turned 70 in March) has delivered a KO punch against Ridley Scott!

Scott of course is far more prolific and well known, with 22 feature films since 1977; his seminal scifi films Blade Runner and Alien, historical epic Gladiator and gritty war film Black Hawk Down have each set the high water mark for visual style in their respective genres. For physician turned film maker Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road is only his 9th film since 1979; four of those have been Mad Max movies, but he’s also made the wonderfully wicked Witches of Eastwick, the 2 Happy Feet animation films (he won an Oscar for the first one) and the tearjerker Lorenzo’s Oil about a family’s battle to find a cure for their son’s rare brain disorder.

While Scott’s style remains just as epic in his later years, none of his recent films have broken any new stylistic ground; whether it is Robin Hood, Prometheus or Exodus: Gods and Kings, there’s been a sense of “been there, seen that” to the look of his films; it’s difficult after all, to raise the bar when the proliferation of CGI has made it possible for a film maker to bring to screen almost anything that he can visualize in his imagination. The barrier therefore is no longer technology, but imagination itself.

And that’s where Miller has scored his knockout. With Mad Max: Fury Road he has just delivered perhaps the most gloriously flamboyant road chase ever seen on screen; no doubt providing a lot of food for thought for every self-respecting action film maker, from Michael Bay to Luc Besson to the Fast and the Furious production team! Much like LP records have made a comeback with music aficionados, non-CGI action films like Fury Road along with Furious 7 earlier this summer and the upcoming Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are finding enormous appeal among action movie fans.

There are enough inventive bits in this film – cars and weapons, costumes and makeup, music and lighting – to keep fanboys and future directors busy analyzing it frame by frame for weeks and months to come. The hyperkinetic chase early on through the warrens of the Citadel, the ludicrous ‘human-powered’ fuel injection system that Nux comes up with during a car chase, the Polecat attack sequence, the live musicians in the War Boys’ convoy and the briefly glimpsed ‘marsh stiltmen’ are just a few of my favourite moments. You will find similar lists populating almost every review of the movie.

As if to give the audience respite from the sun-blasted landscape, Miller sets the middle portion of the chase in the night. The switch from ochres, umbers and siennas to the gun metal blue of the moonlit night is matched by a change in the pace and scale of the chase.

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Half way through the movie, I found my eyes smarting; I realized I was hardly blinking for fear that I would miss even a millisecond of the visual buffet brought to screen by legendary Australian cinematographer John Seale. At the age of 72, he will surely earn his 5th Oscar nomination and perhaps even a win to go with his earlier one for The English Patient.

But for all this talk of visual genius, the critical acclaim for Fury Road owes as much to Miller’s investment in the people as in the cars and production design. The central character in the film isn’t Max; the story is in fact built around a female road warrior named Imperator Furiosa (I could almost hear Hermione say: “it’s Furi-oh-sa, not Furio-saaah”) who is a modern-day Ripley, driven by the same fierce protective instinct that Sigourney Weaver brought to the screen so memorably in Aliens back in 1986. Likewise, Max’s nemesis Immortan Joe – a post-apocalyptic Darth Vader, clad in an acrylic body shield and sporting a fearsome breathing mask – is sure to rank among the top 10 movie villains for years to come; not just for what he does on-screen, but also for the tyranny and unspeakable cruelty he represents.

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Miller believes he has enough material to make another Mad Max film (or three, he says!) and it’s difficult to believe that Warner Bros. will waste even a minute after the opening weekend numbers are out on Sunday night before signing a deal for the next one. Other than the upcoming Jurassic World, I believe it is unlikely there will be another film this summer to top Fury Road. Meanwhile, all is not lost for 77 year old Ridley Scott. In November, he will have a surefire hit on his hands with the release of scifi thriller The Martian. The source material – the best-selling page-turner by Andy Weir – is ‘flop-proof’, but it will be interesting to see how Scott brings it to life on screen. What new visual kick can Scott bring to the real-life space thriller that we have not already seen in Apollo 13 or Mission to Mars?

Summer 2015 movies to watch: 1 down, 10 to go!


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We kicked off the summer movie circus yesterday with Avengers: Age of Ultron which was everything the trailers promised it would be – more superheroes and more action, but also more layered, with some characters taking personal journeys down dark pathways. Bond-style, the action kicks off from the get-go with an exhilarating prologue set-piece and there were plenty of memorable moments right through the movie.

It’s a great start to the summer and there are another 10 movies in my must-watch list from now till mid-August:-

Furious 7 – Well the movie’s been out for a few weeks and is already a worldwide hit. What’s more, the reviews are pretty decent too (Metacritic average score of 67). Will have to catch this soon before it exits theatres. Hats off to horror maestro James Wan, who has directed this ‘emotional’ instalment of the long-running franchise. Eleven years ago, the Malaysian-born director created the micro-budget horror phenomenon Saw, then went on to direct one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent years, The Conjuring. Now, he has succeeded with a completely different genre and is currently rumored to be in the running to direct Warner Bros./DC Comics Aquaman!

Mad Max: Fury Road – This intense R-rated restart of the beloved post-apocalyptic franchise is at the top of my list. The first trailer was epic/ operatic and the final trailer which I caught a glimpse of as I entered the theatre today, tops the first one. From what I’ve seen, the star of this movie is director George Miller. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are all but unrecognizable. In terms of plot, it will be more of the same – brooding loner roams a blasted landscape and crosses paths with a bunch of loonies (see picture at the top of the article) who pay the price for not getting out of his way. Plenty of violence follows. This will not be for the weak-hearted. This is officially my most anticipated movie of the summer.

Tomorrowland – This PG-rated scifi entertainer from Disney is directed by one of my favorite directors, Brad Bird. The 58-year-old has made just 4 films before this – 3 animation classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the movie that gave the franchise a new lease of life and provided Tom Cruise with a rare hit in the past 10 years. The movie’s plot is a bit of a mystery, but the trailers are intriguing as is the casting combination of George Clooney and Britt Robertson (Angie McAlister from Under the Dome).

Entourage – I was a big fan of the TV series and although I skipped out after the 5th season, I remain invested in the lives and loves of the 4 friends who rose up from humble beginnings in Queens to the razzle and dazzle of Hollywood. The movie is directed by creator Doug Ellin and will see the return of all the familiar faces plus a revolving door of celebrities who will be playing themselves. It promises to be good fun and should make a nice little killing at the box office much like the Sex and the City film; I’m not so sure that this will play as well overseas as SATC though.

Jurassic World – The Mad Max franchise gets resurrected after a gap of 30 years and the same summer, the Jurassic Park franchise gets restarted after 14 years, this time helmed 29-year-old whiz kid director Colin Trevorrow. Back in 2001, Jurassic Park III suffered due to weak characters (William H. Macy, Tea Leoni and Alessandro Nivola…really?), but this time around we have Chris Pratt coming in hot off the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Bryce Dallas Howard playing the greedy corporate maven. But the stars of the movie as usual, will be the dinosaurs – since T.Rex is now passé, we have the new genetically created Indominus Rex and a pack of Velociraptors that appear to be loyal to Chris Pratt! I am also expecting this movie to deliver the goods because the story comes from Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver who scripted the two highly acclaimed Planet of the Apes reboot movies and are currently working on James Cameron’s Avatar sequels.

Terminator: Genisys – This is clearly the summer for reviving dormant franchises. The last film in the series, Terminator Salvation was a critical and commercial disappointment (in my view, not much more could have been expected from a director like McG), in spite of having Christian Bale and then red-hot hunk Sam Worthington playing the leads. This time around, there’s a completely new team and the trailers indicate that the story is going to feature a time-travel story retcon, much in the way Star Trek Into Darkness rewrote the story of Khan. This is a risky approach, dangerously close to being a gimmick. Having said that, the trailers and the Entertainment Weekly cover story from January look very cool. I have a lot of respect for the actors – Jason Clark, Emilia Clarke (the dragon queen from Game of Thrones), Jai Courtney and of course, ‘Ahnuld’ is back! This version is directed by TV director Alan Taylor, who has previously done episodes of Game of Thrones.

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Ant-Man – Ah, what might have been if Edgar Wright had stayed on to direct this movie. No less than ‘His Marvelness’ Joss Whedon has said in a recent interview that “Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man was the best script that Marvel ever had’. But it was not meant to be. And now we have this version being released, directed by comedy helmer Peyton Reed, with a script co-written by lead actor and perpetual ‘on-screen loser’ Paul Rudd. I can only hope that Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige is the real man in the driver’s seat of this movie, as we all know how well he has shepherded the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) for the past few years. We’ve all been wondering when the big Marvel machine will fail. Let’s hope this isn’t the one. I actually like the trailer.

Fantastic Four – Here’s another iffy Marvel product, although this one comes from rival studio Fox, which continues to hold on to the rights to this Marvel property. I was excited that this reboot is being directed by 30-year-old Josh Trank who made the found-footage superhero film Chronicle a few years ago.  But then the cast was announced and I was felt they were either unappealing or miscast, particularly Miles Teller (one of my favourite young actors) in the role of Reed Richards. Then the trailer came out and my hopes fell further, because it doesn’t really show anything new that we have not seen in the 2005 origin story. Is Josh Trank the real thing or a flash-in-the-pan? Rival studio Disney (which owns Marvel) wants to know because Trank has been signed on to direct their 2nd Star Wars Anthology film due out in 2018.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – With writer-director Christopher McQuarrie in the hot seat this time, the M:I franchise keeps rolling on, nearly 20 years after it hit the big screen. The real driver is producer Tom Cruise, I think. McQuarrie directed Cruise in Jack Reacher which I very much enjoyed, but he is better known as the man who won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Usual Suspects. I also liked his writing on two other Tom Cruise films – Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, although he has also written his share of flops, i.e. The Tourist and Jack the Giant Slayer. The trailer has Cruise doing his usual death-defying stunts – we’ve seen him hanging from trains and skyscrapers, now he’s holding on to a military transport plane for dear life. It certainly looks like this latest outing will continue to deliver a good mix of intrigue and thrills.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – British director Guy Ritchie went from being the darling of indie crime cinema with his debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the age of 30, to nearly becoming an also-ran who also happened to be the latest husband of Madonna, before redeeming himself with two sparkling large-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, featuring that other comeback artist, Robert Downey Jr. He now turns his attention to a spy series from the ‘60s and hopes to do for it what Brian De Palma did for Mission: Impossible in 1996. On paper, the combination of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in suave 60’s duds sounds appealing; unfortunately, the trailer looks rather boring and the banter seems very forced. It will have been a long hot summer by the time this one rolls in and the buzz will have to be very strong to get paying audiences into the theatres.

2015 movie trailers: Mad Max, Cake, The Walk and White God


Mad Max: Fury Road. Releases in May 2015: Next summer, thirty years after the last entry in the Mad Max trilogy, we will get to see Tom Hardy play ‘Mad’ Max Rockatansky, the cop turned vigilante in post-apocalyptic Australia. Mad Max (1979) and its sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) launched Mel Gibson into international super-stardom. After several years of development hell, director-producer George Miller announced in 2006 that a 4th film in the series would finally be made, but with a younger actor in the lead role. The project went through more delays before filming finally began in 2012 and then went through a lengthy post-production period, including reshoots. Normally, when a film takes this long to get to the screen, people wonder if there are issues with the director or the script. Think about it…George Miller is 69 years old and has not made a regular live action film since Lorenzo’s Oil in 1992 (in the meantime, he has directed two Happy Feet animated movies and the sequel to the talking animal drama Babe). But looking at the teaser trailer which came out yesterday, all such concerns are put to rest. The trailer gets my vote for the best I’ve seen this year and feels solidly connected to the original trilogy; ballsy, operatically violet and visually stunning. Can’t wait!

Cake. Releases in Jan 2015: Every now and then, comic actors get a juicy dramatic role which can become a high watermark in their career. At the end of last year, Julia Louis-Dreyfus bagged just such a role in the little-seen relationship dramedy Enough Said. This year, it’s the turn of Friends alum Jennifer Aniston. In this intriguing trailer, we see Aniston’s character Claire Simmons start a relationship with a widower while bizarrely experiencing hallucinations of his dead wife Nina (played by rising star Anna Kendrick). It seems as weird a relationship triangle as the one in Enough Said, but this film is a dark drama, not a dramedy, so it’s likely to be tough going. Early reviews have been mixed, though.

The Walk. Releases in Oct 2015: I usually keep a close eye on what Robert Zemeckis is doing. The wunderkid director made the hit action-comedies Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit while still in his 30s, then went on to direct serious dramatic fare (Forrest Gump, Contact and Cast Away) before becoming one of the pioneers behind motion-capture animation (The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol). After a long hiatus, he returned to live-action filmmaking with the superb Flight in 2012. Still, I hadn’t realized that he was working on a new project until this teaser trailer was released a few days ago. The Walk tells the true story of French high-wire walker Phillipe Petit’s project to walk across the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974. The trailer is breathtaking.

White God. Releases in Mar 2015: This rather bizarre film won the Prize Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2014; this is the award given to recognize original and daring works by upcoming film makers. This first thing one thinks of when watching the trailer is…Rise of the Planet of the Apes! That’s not to say that this is a scifi film with serums injected into dogs to make them hyper-intelligent. But after all, it does feature a dog separated from its young owner, put into a holding facility with other dogs who then conspire to escape from the facility and run riot on the streets of the city. On the other hand, I can also describe this as the heartwarming story of a dog that wants to be reunited with his sweet 13-year-old owner. Should be an interesting experience; the film is directed by Hungarian actor-turned-director Kornél Mundruczó.