Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Personal taste is one relentlessly uncompromising bastard, ain’t it? You can suppress it externally all you want, but it does not extinguish the fire that threatens to, and often succeeds, engulf your better logical instincts. Because of this unfortunate personal crutch, every film critic or film lover have to live with the fact that they have at least one unpopular film choice in their repetory. For me, it’s the fact that two of my favorite films stem from the Alvin & the Chipmunks live-action franchise.

Oh, the havoc and torment I have endured defending these films. Let me set the record straight, though: No, they are not among the best films of all time and they are not made by exactly dignified directors. Putting their resumes together would create an homogonous, wildy erratic, dichotomous track record, unprecedented in cinema. However, I do love the Squeakquel and Chipmunked, as well as really liking the first film. I believe that there is some simmering wit, as it borderlines as a satire of the absurdity and vapitude of pop music, while not ever entirely reaching that goal, due to submerging into standard, customary kid’s film platitudes. With that said, I personally find the flaws and cliches endearing in a puzzling, incredulously entertaining fashion.

But foremost above all, I personally am drawn to the characters of the Chipmunks, in all their convincing CGI glory. Chipmunks are adorable and talking chipmunks are fervently adorable. Again, my admiration of the films are entirely visceral. They warm the cockles of my heart and I don’t cease to think about them after a viewing. It’s sweet on a transcendent, addicting level, like a Youtube cat video marathon, and I personally rank them higher than most of these live-action, CGI adaptations of children’s shows. THAT SAID, I was not looking forward to this movie, not merely because the third movie, whilst being highly entertaining, was a giant cash grab, but because this film, thanks to its publicity, looked like it sunk to the lowest depths a film of this ilk could. I went in expecting abject and received a textbook example of “average.”

The film begins on the Seville household with Dave trying to put the Chipmunks on a leave of absence from music, so they can live normal lives for a while, despite the fact that Dave’s appearances at the house are more sporadic due to producing music. I guess a house without consistent, stable authority counts as “normal.” Apparently, he doesn’t care as much about the Chippettes, as they are allowed to go off and judge American Idol. Although, asking such questions or getting stuck on thoughts like these would be futile.

Anyhow, Dave does introduce his boys to his new girlfriend, Samantha, as well as her son, Miles, who constantly ridicules and mistreats the Chipmunks. They don’t like each other, which, of course, will last through the ENTIRE duration of the film, right? Around the time Dave is going to spend time with Samantha in Miami, the Chipmunks find a ring in Dave’s bag, leading them to believe that Dave is going to marry her and abandon them, which lead them to talk Miles in embarking on a quest to stop this proposal, which means...ROAD TRIP! The originality is one to be admired.

The one facet about my synopsis that some readers might perceive as odd is the fact that the Chipmunks seem to not have much importance or priority. Well, that’s because, in an odd way, they don’t. Of course, they are the main characters, but screenwriters Randi Mayem Singer and Adam Sztykiel don’t seem to have a steadfast, cocksure grasp in how to delineate them. Their definitions are still in tune, but without any verve or pizzazz, which is rather ironic, seeing how Singer helped write Mrs. Doubtfire, which he took generic concepts and molded them together with flair. Alvin’s still a self-absorbed brat, but without the proper panache, he does nothing to stand out. Theodore’s affinity with food is played up to the most incompetent, transparent degree I have ever seen. Simon is still the same, but again, without liveliness around him, he can’t rise above it. They are quite literally puppets, which is not a crack at the CGI, though it is the worst executed of the series. Alvin looks like a pool toy and Theodore looks like an furry, anime version of Porky Pig.

On the subject of Theodore, the entire film gets Theodore wrong. While he actually gets more funny moments in this film than in many of the other films, it actually somewhat plays to his detriment. Theodore is my favorite Chipmunk, because he was the most innocent, the most helpless and the adorable, winning design and demeanor complimented it immaculately. Because this film doesn’t know how to push its characters, it ends up putting Theodore in a position where he is more mature and outgoing than the past films, yet still trying to maintain his doe-eyed, infantile purity. The problem is that it is never addressed as Theodore struggling with trying to feel older. The contrast is so bemusing that it quickly sinks in that the film has designed Theodore to pander to such an extent that he does things that repeatedly seem out of character, whether he is risking his life in an completely arbitrary, extraneous scene, breakdancing during a Redfoo song or...sigh...rapping Baby Got Back. Yeah, we’ll get to the music later.

Miles, the son, is the typical banal, smart-aleck teen with deep, intrinsic issues that contribute to his temperament, but when they are every handled, they are done so suddenly and with such jarring disingenuity that we never are totally, fully invested in the character. However, it’s refreshing to see newcomer Josh Green try to pull something off with it. Seeing how the Chipmunks are executed with wan and with very little personality, some of their moments of abuse are actually mildly amusing. On the subject of fun performances, Tony Hale devours the scenery as the antagonist, Air Marshall James Suggs. Again, poorly written, but his sheer gusto and bravura in his portrayal makes it highly enjoyable and amusing to watch. Of course, Jason Lee is as indifferent as he possibly can be and Kimberly Williams-Paisley seems to only be doing this role, so she can not merely be remembered as being the chick who is riding Brad Paisley’s saddle. Also, to all Shake It Up fans, Bella Thorne does not make anything close to a star-making turn with this film.

Back on to the subject of music, yes? Being a Chipmunks film, there has to be a barrage of music, primarily consisting of covers, with one original song so unimaginative and trite that it’s not even worth mentioning. Exempting a fairly good cover of Iko Iko, it is the most unimpressive, useless set list in the franchise. They pride themselves on their Uptown Funk cover, presumably because of its demand of popularity. However, it is a horrendous cover with stiff, restrictive instrumentals. And it appears during a scene in the film, which demolishes the equilibrium it had been previously retaining consistently. Again, it is an average film, nothing impressive, but nothing terrible. All of that is temporarily halted when the Chipmunks and Miles arrive in New Orleans in a scene so stereotype-ridden and so culturally limited and watered down that I was personally offended. In fact, with all of the locations exhibited in the film, it feels like Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. wanted to take a vacation, yet make another cinematic installment in the series, so he can live off of its residuals when his Nickelodeon TV reboot show inevitably pitfalls in ratings.

Bagdasarian and his wife are the producers of this film and are behind it, as they are with everything under the Chipmunks name, no matter how inept or baffling it is (see Little Alvin and the Mini-Munks). While their presence may be prevalent, it still isn’t as potent as when the first three films were released. The first three films never prided themselves on creativity, but they had certainly more vibrancy than this film. It’s stale, by-the-numbers, and standardly mediocre, though it isn’t totally bankrupt. Outside of its other strong points I mentioned, there are actually quite a few chuckles that were emitted by me (in between the flatuence and juvenile humor) and a scene involving squirrels injesting peanuts tainted with cough syrup had me hysterically laughing. Additionally, it is nice to just see the Chipmunks onscreen. Their essence is present, but it’s just a shame that their surroundings and mechanics aren’t fraught with any substance. To me, it brings me back to 2003’s Rugrats Go Wild. Both are movies with lovable characters that conjure positive memories and moments from other incarnations and chapters of their concrete, initial source material, but both movies fall victim to decrepit, hackneyed script decisions, awkward pandering, and being practically bereft of any authentic, crucial content.

RATING: Two out of four stars

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2014)

Oh, the trek that I endured with this film. Let me set the context. I'm not being hyperbolic or overreactive of my feelings with this film. I am just talking about the perspectives that encouraged me to see the film. I first viewed the film's trailers and feared it as a soulless, excruciatingly mediocre, by-the-numbers, terribly trite film under the usually meticulous, delicate palms of the company who bestowed unto us the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, and this year's Inside Out. However, subsequent trailers led me to believe that the movie, while still looking simplistic, might still be rich and emotionally effective. After actually seeing it, my verdict is...Eeeehyahoohyaeh.

I'll get to that. The film takes place in a situation where the celestial (or metaphysical or natural, what have you) force that eliminated the dinosaurs did not occur. Cut forward to millions of years later, two full-grown dinosaurs welcome three babies, the last of which is Arlo, the "Good Dinosaur" in question. Given how he is the Good Dinosaur, you can predict the reason why: he doesn't fit in with his family. He is sensitive and wimpy, which hampers his ability to properly assist with duties on his farm. It also doesn't allow him to reach his full potential by doing something magnificent and leaving his mark. After being unable to finish off a creature that is stealing their food, Arlo's father leads him to finish it off and, in the process, his father dies after being washed away in a river during a tempestuous storm. This traumatizes Arlo, but soon after, he confronts the creature, a Tarzan-like boy named Spot. However, Arlo gets lost and has to find his way home and ends up forming an alliance with Spot.

I spent a good 10-20 minutes of this film (near the end of the first act and beginning of the second), watching it impartially. Given how I'm watching a Pixar film, the feeling of indifference is an uninvited one. My feelings about the film, in general, fluctuated throughout the film's 100 minutes (which end up feeling like 130 minutes, but we'll get to that). I submitted to it and accepted it during the first 15 minutes, finding myself quite pleased by its innocence, but was waiting for it to build up. After that, it gets a little complicated.

The reason I state this is because with all the film's strengths (and there are quite a few), the one anchor submerging it underwater is the Good Dinosaur, Arlo. Arlo is one of the most banal, unimpressive, predictable, toothless, ineffectual, and annoying protagonists in the Disney catalog. It may be the worst in the Pixar catalog. Every move he makes and every nuance he delivers is not surprising, but it's still so painfully derivative. You can predict his arc within the first ten minutes and I sat there, rolling my eyes, waiting for the coda of this protagonist to arrive, preferably sooner rather than later, I thought. The film itself already isn't very original (I picked up hints of Ice Age, Tarzan, The Lion King, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, any other children's film about a 'fraidy-cat hero trying to discover his inner strength, and so forth), so breeding that with a character, whose annoying scream is heard about every five minutes, is not exactly a recipe for success.

None of the other supporting characters are very refreshing and they drag the film down with it, as well...with one exception: Spot. His interaction with Arlo keeps the film afloat for a good long while. While Arlo is one of Pixar's worst characters, Spot is one of their best. It's also the perfect dichotomy with two characters fulfilling the opposite of their default reputations: a nervous dinosaur paired up with a brazen, wild child. Youthful pluckiness is nothing new, as isn't utilizing an animalistic human to offset an anthromorphic creature. However, the character is written with subtle charisma and effective gravitas and animated with simple, gripping, at times humorous, body language. How Spot's arc is wrapped up is one of the more engaging, touching, and effective aspects of the film. I believe if the film was told through Spot's perspective as a near-silent film, much like the short, Sanjay's Super Team, which includes some of the most breathtaking, hallucinatory, poppy animation in the PIXAR canon, in addition to some of the most potent storytelling with pitch-perfect timing, I would've been much more appreciative of the film.

Speaking of which, the animation in this god! The characters, outside of Spot, aren't animated very uniquely or impressively, but the lush landscapes, the visually stimulating insects and small creatures, and its realistic geological environment all not only sit comfortably in PIXAR's animation gallery, but also one-ups itself, in terms of overall quality. It's the closest thing to PIXAR's equivalent of Avatar. PIX-atar, if you will. 

However, with all of these positive aspects, it's Arlo that brings the film down, to some extent. The story isn't all that original or even that busy, but the dreariness of Arlo never allows for the film to gain any energy to sustain itself. When Spot exits the picture, the last minutes of the film are all so telegraphed and passe that it makes the entire experience not feel worthwhile. If the main focus and backbone of the film is something so excruciatingly hackneyed, how can any investment be precipitated? As someone who hasn't seen Cars 2 and Brave, I feel that I can still safely, though not comfortably or firmly, say that this is PIXAR's weakest effort; a film not brimming with as much vision or personality or life as any of its past endeavors. It's not a lost cause, but it doesn't rise to its full potential. It's a sweet film, mind you, but not a special one, which is the greatest offense of all.

RATING: 2 1/2 stars out of four

Monday, November 30, 2015

Magnolia (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia, begins with a series of vignettes for approximately five minutes. Narrator Ricky Jay tells us of three different unrelated occurrences: the first one being the murder of a man at Greenberry Hill (the murderers last names were Green, Berry, and Hill), the second one being the death of a casino dealer and a war pilot who committed suicide and the interaction/connection they had, and the third one involving a man attempting to commit suicide, but ended up getting inadvertently shot and killed by his mother. The basic thread of these stories is the matter of chance, which is discussed quite lengthily. In another auteur’s hand, this could’ve came across as an insufferable, heavy-handed, self-indulgent, pretentious ploy to come across as more intelligent than the audience and as more unique than your average filmmaker, when in all actuality, is just being aggravatingly patronizing and overextending their welcome to the point of tedium. However, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hands, he captivates us with those stories, leaving us waiting where they are going to lead us to. It’s a clever decision, among many, on Anderson’s part.

The film revolves around various characters that are all interconnected. There’s a police officer named Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) who balances the duty of his job and his rapidly quick affection for Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), a girl whose apartment he raided on the job. Claudia is the daughter of Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), a game show host who has cancer, and Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon). One of the contestants on the show Gator hosts is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), a child genius pressured by his father (Michael Bowen) to succeed on the show. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a former contestant on that show, whose life is going down the tubes and desperately wants braces to win the heart of a male bartender. The game show’s former producer is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying of cancer. He is under the care of his wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), and Phil Parma (Phil Seymour Hoffman), who is given the task of finding his son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), a flamboyant instructor on how to pick up women.

Yes, this is one of those type of films, a la 2005’s Crash. However, the genius of this film is that, unlike other films of this ilk, this one doesn’t particularly draw a direct web to how these characters relate. It’s there, but it’s rather vague, instead letting the dynamics unfold slowly and naturally. In fact, that’s how the script, written by Paul Thomas Anderson, is constructed, not just in terms of the relevance of the characters in their lives and their personal connections to each other, but also for their thematic relevance and draw.

The film introduces these characters by showing them either on TV or watching TV and near the end, you see a lot of them on telephones. With that statement, one would think that throughout everything going on in their lives, they all share an inability to create and maintain positive relationships, be it romantic or blood, instead finding more ease and connection with the imaginary, misleading paradise projected in a black box and that the challenge is for them to develop a stronger sensibility and connection to reality and the relationships that are present, but are never discovered or pursued. But this isn’t the case.

As the film progresses and the characters are given more careful observations, I began to think that the characters are all united by some form of tension in their lives that they are faced with: Jim simultaneously losing his gun and having a desperate desire to pursue Jim, despite his highly delicate and dignified position, Claudia’s desire to keep her cocaine addiction a secret from Jim, in order to not get arrested, Jimmy’s fight to survive cancer and keep his job, Stanley’s objective to succeed on the game show, his father’s pressure for Stanley to succeed, Donnie’s attempt to get money for braces, Linda’s need to support his ailing husband whilst dealing with other emotions arising from this unfortunate situation, Phil having to summon Frank to see his dad and Frank being confronted with a lie during an interview, as well as having to confront his sick father. While this is true, I soon felt that that conceit seemed too simplistic for a film as intricate as this.

I then wondered if the link connecting these characters was the idea that these characters have done something displeasing in the eyes of the Lord. I’ll get more into religious affiliations later, but in that mindset, I thought Anderson was presenting these characters as flawed under the eyes of God. Claudia’s a drug addict, Donnie plots to steal, both Earl and Linda have admitted to infidelity, Phil watches pornography, Jimmy is accused of molestation, and Frank is delivering messages in his seminars that could be identified as misogynistic, shallow, or both. While a case could be made for this, I felt that this idea still didn’t feel complete or entirely correct. Stanley could, I guess, be seen as disobeying his father, but his father is the one who is putting more pressure on Stanley than he needs. Jim is falling for a girl he just met while on duty, but I am confident in saying that it’d probably be a stretch to say that God would classify this as sinning. Then, I thought that the common thread maybe isn’t what they’re doing but how they react to it. By that I mean, they look for a way out in themselves, not through God. They resort from something as mere as wallowing in their own pity to something more severe, such as harming themselves. However, that still didn’t sound right to me. It still seemed like that didn’t fit well. It didn’t cohere easily or sound strong enough.

And then, that’s when it hit me. I’m sure the common bond of these characters could be interpreted in many ways, or maybe not, but my final perspective relating to the similarities between the characters is rather quite basic: the inherent quality of misery. All of these characters are feeling misery in some way. And that’s where Exodus 8:2 comes in. “But if you refuse to let them go...” In the context of the film, God is telling the sheer forces of misery to let these innocent people go.

Again, I’ve thoroughly discussed the possibilities for the common theme in all of these characters’ lives, but that’s the experience of the film. It draws you into the experience, letting details reveal themselves slowly but surely throughout the film’s 188 minute length. It’s the kind of film where you are engaged all the way through, but you are constantly asking questions. However, if you just surrender yourself to the experience as a whole, your questions will be answered. But then again, maybe they won’t. Like any experience, it is what you make of it.

Anyway, about Exodus 8:2. It is used as symbolism throughout the film. It’s in the forefront, but it’s actually quite subtle; one of those details you need to pay attention to, in order to recognize it. The placement of the verse works as playful humor, in the way it is placed in the film, and as tantalizing foreshadowing. There is a scene in the film where Wise Up by Aimee Mann plays on the soundtrack and the cast starts singing along to it in different locations. While eccentric, utterly original, and almost poetically funny, it is set up to be the true moment of clarity and catharsis in the film. However, the actual true moment is linked to Exodus 8:2, culminating in one of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking images I have ever seen in a film. While arbitrary and mildly cartoonish, it serves as the dark culmination of the film and the emotional release of the film.

For all I talk about the symbolism and the structure of the screenplay and how it reveals both how the characters relate to each other personally and thematically, that’s more a byproduct of the film. Outside of that, the film has extreme emotional potence. I love how Robert Elswit’s cinematography and Jon Brion & Aimee Mann’s score is focused on both adding to the mood of the film and enhancing it. When we are just getting settled with the film, the camera holds back, showing the characters and locations, as it should, and Aimee Mann’s folksy vocals are graced upon us. However, as the film emotionally raises the stakes and heightens the emotions, the camera becomes more intimate with the actors, honing in on their faces, as if the camera wants to transport into the actors’ minds, but Elswit does such a masterful job at framing the actors at their most emotional states of being that we get every beat, every nuance present. And Jon Brion’s instrumental half of the score during these moments becomes unrelenting, as it swells larger and larger, making the atmosphere unnerving. Then, when it gets “calm,” it’s back to the laid-back, expansive, gorgeous camerawork and the voice of Aimee Mann. The location adds to the atmosphere, as well. In the beginning of the film, the weather is partly cloudy, but still pleasant. As the film progresses, it begins to rain. Showers turn into much heavier rain and near the end, the rain stops at a very odd place, leaving us with a haunting aura of stillness that lingers before God gets the last word in.

Yes, this is a lengthy movie. In fact, the leisurely, meticulous structure of the script makes a three-hour movie actually feel quite longer. However, that is only another pro to the movie. The length of the film actually makes each plotline emotionally taut. The longer the stories continue, the more Anderson subtly adds more layers to them. And, of course, the movie is bolstered by an astounding cast, one of the best ever assembled. O’Reilly plays Officer Jim as desperate, but also stoic. Melora Waters portrays Claudia with that same desperation, but with such aching vulnerability and helplessness that you can’t help but pity her, and her dynamic with Jim is an ingenious juxtaposition. Phillip Baker Hall gives a subtle but passionate performance and Melinda Dillon goes from crying over destroyed turkey in A Christmas Story to emotionally liberating herself in such a gut-wrenching way in one of the film’s strongest moments. Jason Robards portrays Earl with warmth and heart, Julianne Moore brings a manic determination to her performance, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is utterly complex, bringing vulnerability and passion to his role, as well. William H. Macy plays Donnie with his usual brand of nervous, Woody Allen-like mannerisms, but his character unfolds in so many different ways that Macy creates such strong emotional moments for him that it’s hard not to feel instantly sad for him. Michael Bowen nails the role of Stanley’s father, while little Jeremy Blackman is surprisingly effective and valiant as Stanley. The stand-out and my personal favorite is Tom Cruise. Cruise has never been more brilliant or powerful than here, as he brings a crazed, demented intensity to his role and hits every mark on the tonal scale impeccably.

To put it bluntly, the film is one of the most spellbinding, intelligent, and spectacular films I have ever seen. It is also one of the ballsiest. Its ability and penchant to be philosophical, cerebral, dramatic, and even humorous, sometimes combined in a single scene, is utterly remarkable and fascinating. I can’t see how there is any other film that came out in 1999 that outdid or bettered Magnolia.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

You know, watching the Ice Age short, “Cosmic Scrat-tosphere,” and then watching the movie that comes after it is a stark, vast contrast. While the short is very funny, it’s taut, spry, rapid, has a giddy, Adderall-like energy, and is based around slapstick, constant oneuppances of humorous conceits, and at times, some admittedly lame puns. The Peanuts Movie is loose, free, sophisticated, and interspersed with the slapstick, is a real cerebral wit. It not only makes you realize how special it is from other children movie fare, but it also makes you realize how much the Peanuts ouevre is a entity, a brand all its own. How many other kid’s movies can find suspense and tension and captivation in the fate of a book report, for God’s sake? It reminds the viewer how Schulz’s unique vision has continuously set itself apart from other children’s media since its humble beginnings as a comic strip.

The plot doesn’t sizzle and ooze with any real surprise, but that’s the form for you. In a nutshell, the film revolves around America’s most lovably downbeat, sullen, insecure child, Charlie Brown, as well as his fellow child companions. Charlie is saddled with disappoinments and prone to bad luck. He wants to be something, but how can he when even his damn kite won’t cooperate with him. His interest in being a better, more confident, more successful version of himself is heightened when the Little Red-Haired Girl enters his life and the remainder of the film is Charlie Brown trying to regain her attention, as well as her admiration, all the while dealing with the idiosyncrasies and escpades of his friends and especially his dog, Snoopy.

In an era where CGI is often seen as poison for adaptations of popular, beloved source materials, it’s refreshing to see the Peanuts in their sketchy, minimal, yet utterly winsome style. What Blue Sky Studios has done that is utterly captivating is preserve the style and framework of Schulz’s drawings, but adapted them to a new incarnation. They don’t change anything, except the technological method of executing it all. It’s a massive risk, as it could have easily appeared stiff and lifeless, but the animators and especially director Steve Marino, a man well-experienced in the Blue Sky Studios community (Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age 4), do a perfect job, bringing to life the best animation I have ever seen in a Blue Sky Studios film.

However, that wouldn’t have meant anything if these elements prevalent in the Peanuts works was missing: the charm, the intellect, and the accessible maturity. Thankfully, all of these are firmly intact, present, and accounted for, thanks to screenwriters Cornelius Uliano and the son and grandson of Charles M. Schulz. Anybody could have the offspring of the creator of the original material work on an adaption, but it takes a real insight, a profound knowledge and sixth sense of the core of the material, to make it fully special. Bryan and Steve Schulz possess it and what we get is a pure, warm, good-hearted, breezy romp.

Why it works is because it doesn’t pander nor talk down to kids. It displays the intelligence of children in a way that isn’t cosmic or overly precocious. Instead of overblowing intelligence of kids, it merely punctuates it and makes it identifiable. Very few children’s movies hit that sweet spot of staying sincere and consistent with itself and its content that it can simultaneously appeal to both children and adults without breaking a sweat. It helps that we have had decades and generations of preparation, but this film works by itself, in addition to being a wonderful passion project of the Peanuts and an introductory piece of the Peanuts. The characters’ quirks are already funny on their own merit and they are just as funny when you are familiar with them from past experience. And while certain homages and callbacks to original Peanuts projects are funnier when one has been familiarized with the work, they still work on the level that kids can laugh, as well. As stated before, there is some pervasive physical humor, but it is meticulously crafted, rather than being tight and frenetic.

Nothing is accentuated more than past Peanuts material. It’s more of an continuation of the work that picks up practically where it left off (although, I maybe shouldn’t say that until I see I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown). It’s kept even and simple. The voice actors do a good job with their roles. None of them are standouts per se, but they all possess the right timing, tone, and charisma for their characters. It’s children playing children, so...brava! It’s exciting to see Bill Melendez reprise his role as Snoopy and Woodstock via archival audio and Kristin Chenowth (puzzling casting choice) plays Fifi, Snoopy’s love interest in his fantasies as a WWI flying ace. The score is also left untouched, sticking to basic compositions and the familiar riffs and tunes we are all familiar with. And it is just as magical now as it was then. Hell, it begins with Schroder playing the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. If that isn’t mind-blowingly awesome, I don't know what is.

Now, as much as I praise the film, it’s nothing spectacular. Because the Peanuts’ humor and format is so simple, it gets a little repetitive and one-note by the third act. It’s still adorable and enjoyable, but not as strong as the first two-thirds, which is different from past Peanuts movies like, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Snoopy Come Home. They are entertaining whilst staying subtle and easygoing throughout, but on a level where no one part of the film is better than the other. This cinematic adaptation has slightly more energy than those two films, but because it is so bare-bones in theory and execution, it makes it start to taper at times. Plus, some of the homages do feel a little forced and a scene where Charlie Brown does the chicken dance is painfully pandering. Also, while I love the score, any other music tacked on is as generic and bland as you can get. I mean, I love Meghan Trainor, but I could live without hearing, “Better When I’m Dancing” ever again.

Adaptations or re-tellings of anything arrive in full force year after year, but it seems that this year, we are getting a little more range with them. Whether it is watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt suspensefully tightrope on the Twin Towers, revealing of the revelance of NWA, bringing Shaun the Sheep to the masses, having pirates groove to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (dear God), ending the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise (one can only hope), or with this movie, it seems as if this year, the adaptations, re-tellings, and even biopics and sequels ostensibly have a desire to at least try and be different, more invigorating than just standard, gargatuan blockbusters, for better or for worse. I’m not saying there are plunging into extreme, superior intellectual revelations or discoveries, but there’s a quality that again, for better or for worse, seems to set this year apart from others. And this movie probably has the heaviest, most delicate responsibility and ambition of them all, this side of Star Wars. Yet, what we see is something that seems so effortless. Maybe because it’s hard to screw up a Peanuts movie, unless you both leave what isn’t broken and change what won’t hurt. This movie manages this task, thus being the best Blue Sky Studios film I’ve seen. Keep in mind, that’s not saying much for Blue Sky Studios, but it’s still complimentary. It’s a nice film. Very nice.

RATING: A high three out of four stars!

Monday, August 31, 2015

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

I don't want to sound like a fragile, Baby Boom-era mother, but this country's going to hell in a handbag. News anchors are biting the dust on air due to former anchors, ISIS is still on the prowl, police officers seem to be almost remorselessly resuming to savage African-American lives (hell, lives of any race), riots have become almost basic and banal, pop music has decided to hibernate this year, we have added another theater shooting to our repertoire, as well as adding church on the list of Places You Can't Go Without Being Killed, and Donald Trump is a presidential candidate. Excuse me while I go search for applications for Canadian citizenship. So throughout all of this, it is fitting, yet still odd, to think that we can still find pertinence in N.W.A. Hell, they themselves have gone through drastic metamorphoses (So long solo Dr. Dre records. We'll miss you). I think this is why this film has been not merely been fiercely hyped by the press, but has received as much intensely devoted, satisfied word of mouth. It's a throwback to a time where things were simultaneously worse, better, and just as bad. It's also a damn good film.

The film is, as expected and widely known, a chronicle of one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time and pioneers of gangster rap music. Fetty Wap, I believe a thank you is in order. It follows them from their humble beginnings in Compton, through their deal with producer Jerry Heller with Ruthless Records, and throughout the group's eventual breakup and individual pursuits, all the while living through police brutality, shit-talk, financial shortcomings, and a death or two.

Going into the film, I was comparing it, in a way in which I wanted this movie to rise above, to, unfavorably, Get On Up, that disappointing James Brown biopic from last year (review plug). And sure enough, both films begin in a rather unorthodox, opposite form. Where last year's film began on a cocky, mildly arrogant James Brown chastising a woman for having *in a British voice* the gall to extract her droppings on his porcelain pedestal (Huh-bluh-bluh! Most unorthodox!), this film begins with Eazy-E hanging out with some people in a house infested with drugs and filth when the boys in blue show up and raid the house. In a surprisingly thrilling moment, Eazy-E makes a run for it and escapes, as the house is being invaded with a battering ram. On paper, it sounds like run-of-the-mill, predictably dramatic, calculated exposition and motivation for "bigger things". However, on film, it sets the tone of the entire film: raw, ugly, and uncompromising.
Like the streets in which the group repeatedly preaches to be representing in their music, this film has a tough tone to it. Director F. Gary Gray, who coincidentally worked with Ice Cube on a non-dramatic film, Friday, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique opt for tight close-up shots, particularly in the performance scenes, but it is existent in other scenes, as well. However, while some might see this as unnecessary and distracting, it actually describes the film: tight. It is evident that the filmmakers don't want you to enjoy the music. They want you to experience it, feel it, comprehend it. These shots are taut, in-your-face, and unapologetic, just like the visceral, abrasive music that N.W.A. brought to life.

On that note, the actors do a wonderful job in bringing these rappers to life on film. I initially wasn't entirely sure of Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, as I felt he didn't entirely look like Eazy-E, though I can revise this stance as I was reminded near the end that Eazy-E had a fuller face than I thought, but his performance allowed me to see beneath his exterior and submit to the actor, acknowledging that he got right one key thing: the essence of Eazy-E. He almost impeccably portrayed the soul of Eazy-E: the impassioned, conflicted, charismatic, and sensitive soul. BTW, to all my Eazy-E fans, yeah, I acknowledge that the film butchered the true origin of how N.W.A. formed, but let's just move on.

Additionally, O'Shea Jackson, Jr. does a tremendous job playing Ice Cube. He maintains the right balance of aggressive command, unapologetic vitriol, and restrained assurance. Plus, he does a great job of rapping like his dad, especially on an exhilarating re-creation of No Vaseline. His natural deadpan style actually strengthens his emotional moments and renders them more sincere. Sure, some might complain about his lack of complete emotion, but hey, like father, like son. Corey Hawkins matches both the appearance and intensity of Dr. Dre and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren (despite not looking remotely like him, but sounding everything like him) and Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella are both serviceable. 

There are many other appearances by a multitude of actors who have the dutiful task of portraying rappers, like Snoop Dogg and 2Pac and they all hit bullseye. But as of the entire supporting cast, the two standouts are Paul Giamatti and R. Marcus Taylor. Giamatti as Jerry Hiller, the record executive who appears to do more harm than good, has an obsessive, vulnerable strength to the role, which, instead of making him a hollow, warmed-over caricature seen repeatedly to no end, strengthens his character and we end his arc, feeling sympathy for him, seeing him as deceptive, but invested and connected with his client. Taylor's performance as Suge Knight couldn't come at a better time. In the midst of the culmination of his legal troubles, Taylor is seething with menace, portraying Suge as a lumbering, selfish, unbridled, physically intimidating Hulk of a human being with little to no emotional core or consideration. It's chilling, but utterly captivating work.

However, two areas that impressed me were the execution of the action and the emotional impact. Title sequence aside, there is a concert sequence involving police that is completely a chaotic, white-knuckle moment, coming at the apex of a scene that already graduates into more tense territory minute by minute. However, I reiterate, what is more impressive is the emotional impact the film creates. This film has been criticized by deploying into treacly sensitivity and copping-out. I personally feel that this section, as well as other emotional moments in the film, are played incredibly sincere, with the wistful feel of tragedy actually working alongside the tangible, confrontational, dour realism the film had been maintaining. Hell, the decline of the group, a common occurrence in biopics, is actually more meaningful because it signifies that they can never escape their ghetto, shoddy lives. Even though they left the ghetto, the attitude never does and it catches up to them.

Above all, in all of its grimy, gut-punching verisimilitude, the film more importantly actually steeps itself in the element of nostalgia. With all of the violence that still carries over to present time, the film looks back on this time period in a way that's both matter-of-fact and, in its own perverse way, somewhat joyful. Not in the exploitation of their negative surroundings and the reaping benefits, mind you, but of the liberation and the rush of confronting them. Whatever you want to say about N.W.A.'s material, it didn't sugarcoat anything and it didn't hesitate. While Get On Up was a vanity project, this film is a passion project. It presents an obvious, but still relevant ideal that in order for us to be relieved of any problem, we have to first confront it. Some people do it by laughing, some do it by crying, but N.W.A. showed us that we can do it by merely speaking out, holding nothing back, and not cowering to any outside influences. It has a purpose. This is the ultimate arc and core of N.W.A, as clips and videos of N.W.A. near the end clearly demonstrate. And some of them keep it hard to this day, whether it is by playing second banana to a 5'4'' comedian or by letting Apple bring you to an orgasm in exchange for headphones. THUG LIIIIFE!

Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of four

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

"Disney Presents... A Pixar Animation Studios Film." Seven words I never want to see vanish.

A video intro by Pete Doctor, on behalf of AMC, showing his gratitude to PIXAR'S loyal viewers and his undying hope that we, PIXAR'S followers, appreciate their latest effort reminded me: Holy shit, PIXAR has been around for twenty years. I have been around for nineteen. Oh look, could that be a gray hair I see that has fallen on my Chromebook?

Since Disney has been a perennial staple on our youth for as long as there have been children since the late thirties, it is only fair that PIXAR would be a staple that spawned from that staple, though still having the same neverending glow of its parent. A talking cowboy and a space ranger and the groundbreaking animation used to mold them into characters that have stayed fresh and present in our decaying minds offered us solace from the doldrums Disney was suffering. Thank you, Michael Eisner!

So it is weird to say that for a while (in other words, a year-and-a-half since Frozen came out), the parent swooped it and took back over, but that's what happened as PIXAR's fans felt that after producing one of the best second sequels in all of film history, PIXAR soon began to lose sight of the enlightening, magical essence that put PIXAR at the top of the animation game for years. But hey, at least we had Dreamworks putting out enduring, timeless classics like... Turbo, Megamind, and The Croods. *throws confetti half-heartedly*

However, I stand here (actually, I sit a local Starbucks) to tell you that PIXAR is back in shape. They have the eye of the tiger and have ferociously invaded the megaplex with one of the most bizarre, quirkiest, yet oddly touching works ever engraved with the PIXAR signature of significance. I am of course talking about...Lava. The recent PIXAR short. I won't reveal anything, but the way it tells a cohesive, cogent, and engaging story in five minutes is truly a feat of its own.

So yeah, that's all for now. Bye! ...Oh wait, yeah, there's also this movie that came after it, which is only one of the best movies of the year. You probably don't want to hear about that, so I am gonna tell you anyways! You're welcome!

Inside Out, PIXAR's 15th cinematic effort, centers on the voices inside our head. In this case, in an eleven-year-old hockey fanatic named Riley. Since birth, mascots have developed inside of her head that represent five different feelings: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Along with these fine characters is also a world inside of Riley's head, comprised of all the memories she has compiled and collected over the years, as well as five different islands that are the primary basis of her personality. The feelings are stationed at Headquarters. Joy is the leader, whose effervescent, continuously positive attitude has made Riley a balanced, fairly easy, outgoing child until Riley is removed from her humble residence in Minnesota to a dingy house in San Francisco. When Sadness begins to intervene with the emotional interworkings, things go wrong and through a series of hectic events, Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters and have to return to restore positivity in Riley's life, through this difficult transition. Yeah, it's less complicated seeing it, as opposed to reading about it.

There's actually a genesis to my love for this movie. The first two-thirds of this movie is definitely three-and-a-half stars, starting out. Not astounding, but immensely entertaining. You know the phrase, "laugh-a-minute?" This movie is basically "laugh-a-second." Every minute has at least five bullseye, laugh-out-loud moments. One of my favorites is a recurring joke involving a gum commercial jingle, which I won't ruin its context. Just believe when I say it's a hit every time. Also, let me say that Riley is not the only one whose feelings are seen in this film. Several characters, including the parents, have their feelings personified manifested to the audience. This leads to jokes centered around this, including memories of a Brazilian hunk and the feelings of a cat, which are both the highpoint of this subsidiary of the film's plot. Just a fancy way of saying "subplot."

PIXAR also shows off its raging facility for connecting perfect voices to their characters. Amy Poehler's niche for sharp characters that are still, at their core, sweet and loony is best used here as Joy. Phyllis Smith has the exact droning, helpless voice that the character of Sadness requires. Bill Hader, channeling a high-octane Woody Allen, is brilliant as Fear. Mindy Kaling hits all the right notes as Disgust and Lewis Black, though surprisingly more underplayed than I expected, still is the ultimate casting choice as Anger. Outside of those, the primary voice talent for the supporting cast is Richard Kind, a minor PIXAR regular, as Bing Bong, Riley's imaginary friend, who is part cat, elephant, and dolphin. Kaitlyn Dias, presumably in her first film role, displays intense charisma and vulnerability as Riley and Kyle McLachlan and Diane Lane are both entirely servicable as the parents.

Additionally, the action, man. When Toy Story 3 came out, it was praised for its action scenes, on par with even most adult action films. I reiterate that statement here. Part of it is the world created here, which I will discuss soon, but the set pieces here are surprisingly gripping and tense, given the fact that the consequence of one false step is the most menacing pit of dirge and emptiness since 300. So all of this was well worthy of three-and-a-half stars.

...Then! Then we get to one primary emotional scene involving Bing Bong in the final third of the film. I won't reveal what happens, but in that moment, I cried like a baby. I was so involved with this character and this world that it struck a chord with me and delivered the most emotional, profound, saddest moment I have seen in a PIXAR film. What was it? What got into me? What was the core to my crying?

Then, I realized it was the themes presented. Outside of the premise, which is prone for psychological discussion, and obvious symbolism, PIXAR takes it several steps further in its final third. The involvement of Sadness and her dynamic with Joy and the way it reveals itself turns this film into a struggle between fantasy and reality, between the desired and the required. Joy is the primary feeling, which shows in Riley. She starts to show other emotions, but Joy fights them off, resulting in Riley retaining an optimistic disposition, which puts Riley in the role of the emotional foundation and sanity in the family. But she is a child. Putting an individual that naive and vulnerable is such a hefty role inevitably doesn't end in a easy, convenient matter. The feelings of the child must be considered as well. But the real meaning goes beyond that. Joy being the leader has created, fairly, an unrealistic approach for Riley's problems. A consistently positive, upbeat sensibility, while ideal in thought, is actually a rather shallow, superficial perspective. Melancholy and negativity, while as depressing as they sound, bring you into reality and surrendering to it momentarily and not ignoring it is where happiness eventually comes and makes it all the more rewarding. You suffered, so you could then smile.

Here's the secret though, as far as writing. What PIXAR has done is simplified the gravitas and principles of this reality, but they didn't dumb-down the intelligence of it. They instead made it relatable for its primary and most important audience: children. However, the mantra is still there, so it be can discovered by and evoke thoughts and feelings to its transcendent audience: adults. Because of this, there is a meeting of minds between children and adult audiences. Additionally, adults can then think of their own feelings and how they felt as a child and see its relevance. On top of that, the principles have been personified, so, again, kids can relate. To have elements like these, the most mature ever told in the PIXAR catalog, be told so smoothly in an escapist, children's picture is one of the modern marvels of cinema history.

The imagination of the script and its ideas can be transferred to the world director Pete Doctor and the multitude of animators have produced into fruition. This is the most imaginative setting ever presented in a PIXAR film. Every couple of minutes, there's a whole new idea that is visually arresting, intellectually stimulating, and yet psychologically relevant. It actually outdoes the animation of the characters, though they are designed very vibrantly, including Joy, whose design is very much like Tinker Bell.

I have a quick theory. PIXAR films, on average, take four years to make. If this is consistent, this film would have began filming circa 2011. Cars 2, widely considered the worst of the PIXAR oeuvre, came out during this year. My theory is that the film began to be created during this backlash and the succession of servicable, but not very special films between Cars 2 and this film was a trick by John Lasseter and the PIXAR crew to prepare us for this film. I can't confirm this, but if it is, I love you, you evil geniuses. Often, I know a movie is of quality if, outside of the technical aspects, it passes one simple, visceral test: Am I still thinking about it after viewing it? Now, often it is yes, because you just got done seeing it, no matter how good or how bad. However, I know a movie is great when not only am I still thinking about, but I am dying to turn around and see it again. Inside Out gave me this feeling. Not only can't I wait for the DVD release (still haven't been financially adequate to convert to Blu-Ray, so shut up), but I can't wait for the multitude of think-pieces by psychologists and psychology professors, who will examine and dissect this film ad nauseaum, nor can I wait for the 10th anniversary release with retrospectives from the cast and crew, discussing its impact on the PIXAR name and all of the jumping desklamps that come with it. Hopefully, Lewis Black is still alive. One can only hope.

RATING: Four out of four stars!