Friday, June 19, 2015

Pixar’s INSIDE OUT Pulls Every Heartstring There Is

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dirs. Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen, 2015)

Pixar’s entry into this year’s summer event movie sweepstakes is one of the trusty animation studios’ most purely pleasurable productions.

Its strengths are many: it’s not another sequel, it has an incredibly solid comic cast headed by Amy Poehler, it’s a dazzling display of colorful concepts, it has the right amount of light, the right amount of darkness, it’s hilarious, it’s heartfelt, and it has a much better female-centric scenario than BRAVE.

Most of INSIDE OUT takes place inside the psyche of an 11-year old girl named Riley, voiced by Kaitlyn Dais. We learn right off the bat that there are five emotions behind the control panel of Riley’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, which are respectively personified by Poehler, Phyllis Smith (best known as Phyllis from The Office), Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling (another Office alumni), and Bill Hader (Poehler’s former SNL co-star).

When Riley and her parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco, Sadness starts to affect her core memories (represented by glowing orbs which are gathered on shelves in a vast long-term storage library). These core memories power personality islands – i.e. essential components of Riley’s identity – with names like Friendship Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island, and Honesty Island, which are connected to the central control room via thin bridges.

Joy tries to stop a sad core memory of Riley crying in front of her class on the first day at her new school from becoming part of her being, but ends up getting sucked with Sadness, and other core memories, through a vacuum tube and deposited into the far reaches of the ever-growing more despondent girl’s mind.

So Joy and Sadness have to make their way back to headquarters, which is faltering due to Anger, Disgust, and Fear being in charge. Joy and Sadness journey through realms such as the Center for Abstract Thinking, Imagination Land, and Dream Production, but most significantly they encounter Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong, adorably voiced by Richard Kind.

Bing Bong, a hot pink hybrid of elephant, cat, and dolphin outfitted with a porkpie hat and bowtie, who cries hard candy, is eager to help the stranded emotions get back by way of the Train of Thought though Riley’s subconscious. Meanwhile, the identity islands are collapsing, and Anger plants the idea to have Riley run away back to Minnesota in a misguided attempt to fix things.

Poehler brings a can-do gusto to her lead role of Joy that would make her Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope proud, while Smith’s Sadness gets to do more than just amusingly mope through – her developmental arc is key. The remaining emotions have their funny moments, especially Black’s red hot Anger, whose concern for learning curse words is a great running gag. I wouldn’t have minded more of Kaling and Hader’s takes on Disgust and Fear, but maybe less really is more.

As for the outside of Riley, Lane and MacLachlan provide a grounded parental presence – we get to see inside their heads in one of the film’s funniest scenes – that we see in flashes as being as stressed in adjusting to the move as their daughter. Dias does a good job as the everygirl Riley, wonderfully capturing the awkwardness, confusion, and pain that any kid and adult can relate to.

INSIDE OUT is on par with the best of Pixar. It maybe doesn’t scale the heights of Docter’s previous masterpiece UP, but that it gets so close is reason to rejoice. Its screenplay, courtesy of Docter, Josh Cooley, and Meg LeFauve, definitely re-establishes the studio's high standards of humor, invention, and emotional pull that had gotten a little misplaced in one too many sequels (that one being CARS 2).

As usual, the obligatory 3D presentation didn’t do much for me, but I was glad that I had the glasses on throughout as they helped to hide how much I kept tearing up. Consider every heartstring pulled.

More later...

Friday, June 12, 2015


Now playing at a monster-sized multiplex near you:

JURASSIC WORLD (Dir. Colin Trevorrow, 2015)

There are only two plot points in every JURASSIC PARK movie. They are as follows: #1. There are dinosaurs – that’s amazing! #2. We must now get the Hell away from them.

It’s been 22 years since the highly praised first film in the franchise which was based on the 1990 Michael Crichton bestseller, and 14 years since the heavily maligned third entry, but those same elements are strongly intact in this fourth installment.

They just added some new faces on top of the premise that we’re now dealing with a fully functioning theme park, and a new hybrid dinosaur designed to wow the kids because, as park operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) puts it: “Let’s face it, no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore.”

This “new” adventure concerns Claire’s nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) coming to visit Jurassic World at the same time that the ginormous hybrid breaks free and, you know, starts killing people and other dinosaurs.

The idea to create this highly intelligent, extremely dangerous animal dubbed the Indominus rex for the purposes of marketing a new attraction is criticized by the park’s buff raptor wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who leaves all his lovable Chris Pratt-isms (see Parks and Recreation, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) behind to play a generic bad ass hero character complete with lame wise-cracks.

Meanwhile, the villain this time is the head of the park’s private security force portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military purposes. The moment he starts spouting out his evil disrespectful to nature rhetoric, we know we’re gonna see him getting eaten later.

There’s also the useless mystery of what dinosaurs the Indominus rex is a hybrid of. We are told that its base is a T-rex, but the rest is classified, so throughout the movie Pratt is trying to put together that puzzle.

But, of course, nobody cares about that flimsy connective tissue. What people are coming for is the mayhem with dinosaurs attacking tourists, kids narrowly escaping grisly deaths, and lots of CGI-ed spectacle, and it’s all here in set piece after set piece.

There are lots of call backs to the Steven Spielberg-directed original too, including an appearance by the old, crumbling Jurassic Park’s visitor’s center (complete with the same old jeep), holograms of the most memorable creatures such as the Dilophosaurus in the new fanged visitor’s center, and B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member from the first film, as Dr. Henry Wu, the chief geneticist, who could be seen as the film’s other villain.

There is some comic relief in the control room via Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Lauren Lapkus (Orange is the New Black) as frightened engineers, but very little of the film’s humor really takes hold.

JURASSIC WORLD is a fast paced ride, which will surely please hardcore fans of the franchise, and folks looking for a few hours of air-conditioning, but it’s just another pile of dinosaur shit, one that, at times, doesn’t look that different from last year’s GODZILLA reboot.

The monster mash-up that is the Indominus rex is just a much bigger T-rex, Pratt’s and Howard’s characters could have been played by anybody, and 
D’Onofrio's by-the-numbers bad guy is a crude bore (he's a much better villain on Netflix's Daredevil series).

And as much as composer Michael Giacchino cribs from John Williams’ original score to accompany sweeping shots of the island and theme park, that old Spielbergian sense of wonder just can’t quite be summoned.

I will say that the film does serve up a crowd pleasing climax, one that really roused the audience at the screening I attended, but that alone doesn’t elevate this tired material much.

That it took four screenwriters - Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and director Trevorrow - to come up with this supersized retread may the only genuinely shocking and hair-raising thing about it.

More later...

Friday, June 05, 2015

John Cusack & Paul Dano Embody Brian Wilson In LOVE & MERCY

Now playing at an indie art theater near me:

LOVE & MERCY (Dir. Bill Pohlad, 2015)

I was really skeptical of when I first heard about this project, a biopic of Brian Wilson in which he’s portrayed by Paul Dano when he’s young and all mixed up in the ‘60s, and John Cusack when he’s middle-aged and all mixed-up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The stills and footage that were initially released showed that there was a lot of attention paid to Dano’s look via his hair and wardrobe made to make him look like prime period Wilson, but the pics of Cusack, well, they just looked like Cusack. No attempt to make him look like Wilson in his 40s with a salt-and-pepper pompadour or anything. It’s just Cusack with his jet black hair, wearing shirts he’d normally wear like he just walked on to the set and refused to take part in any hair and make-up nonsense.

It’s a lot like how Cusack appeared as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER a few years back. Despite a little bit of a prosthetic to elongate his nose, Cusack still just looked, and mostly acted (he made a slight attempt at the disgraced President’s accent) like himself.

It’s odd as Cusack has had a rocky career of late, walking through a bunch of sad direct to VOD releases, and not even appearing in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE 2, the sequel to the last movie he made that could reasonably be called a hit, so you’d think he’d change his look a little here to play the iconic singer/songwriter/producer.

But maybe the point in producer turned first time director Pohlad’s adaptation of the life of Wilson is that he shouldn’t have to. It’s like Todd Haynes’ I’M NOT THERE, the abstract 2007 biopic of Bob Dylan in which 7 different actors played Dylan at various points of his career. The themes, thoughts, and tones from the times that enhance the non-stop music are the focus, not whether whoever looks like the actual person.

That said, the most effective scenes in LOVE & MERCY, which takes its name from a track from Wilson’s 1988 self-titled solo album, are the ones in which the floppy haired Dano as the 20somethng Brian toils away in the studio making his ‘60s pop masterpieces “Pet Sounds” and SMiLE.”

The movie, which was co-scripted by Oren Moverman, who co-wrote I’M NOT THERE not coincidentally, moves back and forth from Dano’s Wilson in full genius mode to Cusack’s burned-out Wilson who’s under the control of corrupt psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti chewing the scenery to bits).

Both versions of Brian (or “Bri” as his fellow brothers and bandmates call him) have their villains. Dano has his father Murray Wilson (Bill Camp) and Mike Love (Jake Abel) on his back about making more conventional, commercial music (in protest Brian exclaims: “We’re not surfers - we never have been - and real surfers don't dig our music!”) while Cusack has the evil, oppressive Landy thwarting his every move to have a normal life. 

And a normal love life via Elizabeth Banks in a warm, winning performance as Melinda Ledbetter, former model turned Cadillac saleswoman (they have a meet cute at her dealership), who sees pretty quickly that Giamatti’s Landy is a horrible influence on the beleaguered Beach Boy.

Melinda witnesses the creepy doctor’s methods – made creepier by Giamatti’s bug-eyed intensity - under his oppressive 24-hour a day supervision. Landy, who we see in a pivotal scene berating his patient for eating a hamburger without permission, eventually forbids the budding relationship between Melinda and Brian. Melinda then starts phoning members of Wilson’s family, and doing what she can to rescue Brian from Landy’s clutches.

This is well-acted, well executed stuff, but the real heart of the film is in the recreations of the studio sessions in the ‘60s. It’s apparent that filmmaker Pohlad, and screenwriters Moverman and Michael A. Lerner, have studied every bit of footage, noted every instance of studio chatter, and absorbed every bit of the multi-disc box sets, and bootlegs of “Pet Sounds” and Smile” material. They also earn points for depicting and paying respect to “The Wrecking Crew,” the group of top notch session musicians that took endless notes from Brian on how to arrange his “teenage symphony to God,” but not calling them by that name as it was applied much later.

Dano and Cusack both do good work in embodying the tortured artist that has heard voices in his head in 1963, but it’s Dano who nails the young Brian’s angsty ambition. And, like I said before, it helps that he actually resembles Wilson. While Cusack puts in one of his most lived-in performance in ages, I still had to remind myself that he was playing the same person as Dano.

LOVE & MERCY is a much better than average musical biopic, because it’s more concerned with capturing the psychological essence of its subject than it is with a formulaic greatest hits approach – although its soundtrack is prime period Beach Boys tracks blaring from start to finish. The casting may be a bit mismatched, but the vibrations it picks up, both good and bad, all resonate extremely deeply.

More later...