Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

As I prepared myself in the Edwards Cinemas in Ontario Mills, the screen went black for approximately 30-45 seconds before the intro of the theater and its subsequent trailers. "It's still better than Into Darkness," a random fellow behind me assuredly preached. This comment reinforced my view of the current state of affairs for J.J. Abrams: he is officially a Hollywood filmmaker. Now, this may seem like a redundant, blatant observation, but I do have a point with this. Through most of his career, his primary forte was television, merely producing films to hand over to the more experienced directors, but over the past few years, his demand as a director has been triumphantly bestowed unto him, along with the all the bullshit he gets to experience.

In particular, the excessively technical, pretentiously analytical diatribes he has had to unfortunately confront. While his prior dual directional efforts (Star Trek: Into Darkness and Star Wars: The Force Awakens) succeeded critically (86 and 92% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes) and financially, Into Darkness received a sudden, furious backlash involving sexism, whitewashing, and recycling a previous Star Trek film to exploit the nostalgia of Trekkies, and Force Awakens, while not as reviled, still has a growing, militant collective of detractors, claiming creative cloning of the original Star Wars film. While I would rather not summarize all backlashes simplistically and while I do understand certain perspectives, I can't say I personally agree with these criticisms.

I bring up all of this as a means of setting context. There does seem to be a demographic, a certain audience looking to see the demise of Abrams. So, when he handed the reigns to the Star Trek trilogy to director Justin Lin, it could have easily played to Abrams' downfall, seeing how Lin's notoriety stems from the Fast and the Furious films, which, let's be honest, aren't exactly revered because of thematic innovation or emotional integrity. However, watching this film, it's surprising that he didn't direct Furious 7, because the solemnity and sensitivity of how Leonard Nimoy's passing is incorporated in this film is more emotionally resonant than the Paul Walker tributes over the past year-and-a-half. It establishes his imprint on the franchise: one that doesn't elevate, but continues its, in my opinion, entertaining streak.

The film begins three years into the five-year excursion of the starship Enterprise. Their mission being to travel to various planets, establishing friendly, diplomatic ties. While both Kirk and Spock are wrestling with the worth of their mission and aspiring for other goals, an alien, Kalara, sends the Enterprise on a rescue mission, claiming her ship is stranded on Altamid. It turns out she has ulterior motives, which leads to the Enterprise being under heavy attack by one commander Krall. While the crew escapes safely, albeit becoming stranded on Altamid in the process, the Enterprise is destroyed. However, Jaylah, a scavenger who escaped Krall's clutch, eventually reunites them in the USS Franklin, an early Starfleet vessel that disappeared years ago. After successfully repairing it to its state of glory, the Enterprise crew and Jaylah band together to take down Krall, who is conspiring an attack against the Federation, using the hazardous technology of an alien artifact, the Abronath.

The intriguing facet about the world of Altamid is that for such a full-bodied universe, its geographical display is surprisingly limited. It's beautiful aesthetically, but its underlying mood is one of desolation and claustrophobia. And honestly, that's the most precise approach and tone with this particular story. It isn't a convivial, simplistic journey on this planet. It's a mission of exigency, uncertainty, and mystery. The fact that a heavy emphasis is placed on the conditions of the starships renders them into full-fledged characters themselves. They are, in themselves, iconic staples of pop culture established for over four decades, but this film hones in on the whopping awe and larger-than-life majesty of them, preserving the tone of significance and dignity of the Star Trek universe that Abrams laboriously sought to capture in the first two films.

Outside of the committed veneration for its material, this film, in addition, more than delivers on the basics. The boisterous visuals exhibit a pomp uniquely its own. They are a tremendous fit to the intoxicating action sequences. Every one of them have not a wasted minute and are beautifully rendered in IMAX 3D. Yes, I just realized that preceding IMAX with "beautiful" is redundant. The ambush of the Enterprise by Krall near the beginning of the film delivers an exhilaration, an intensity, and a rigorous, gripping rhythm on a level I haven't seen since, hell, the Battle of Normandy in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. They deliver that same height of an unexpected, visual kick-start that impeccably places itself at the right point, to where the intro delivers exposition that isn't perfunctory, but it doesn't allow you to rest comfortably either. Oh, and there's also an action sequence with the most brilliant utilization of the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" I've ever witnessed in a film. 

Additionally, writers Doug Jung and Simon Pegg imbue the film with a perfectly prescribed dose of comedy as well, never coming across as contrived or discordant in tone. Oh, and one of the jokes involves one of the most hilarious usages of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" that I have ever witnessed in a film. I don't know whether the song choices were of Pegg or musical demi-god Michael Giacchino, but they leave a deeper impact than the score does. If only Rihanna was that lucky, but I digress. In addition to Pegg's typical comedic sensibilities, I was surprised by the competence and heft of the dramatic moments. I already discussed the pitch-perfect incorporation of Ambassador Spock, but I also found myself invested with Kirk's plight, as well. While its coda is predictable, the motivation and pathos rooted in Kirk's initial sensibilities lend his character a taciturn humility. Krall, while menacingly imagined, is rather thinly written with melodramatic speeches about betrayal, strength, and other adjectives presumably added in for purposes of the trailer, but his overall arc and revelations about Krall in the final third transform a vaguely empty villain into a multi-layered antagonist with hopeless humanity.

The actors also step up their abilities, as well. Chris Pine effortlessly immerses himself back in his role as Captain Kirk with a charismatic valiance and a controlled, quiet brood. Zachary Quinto as Spock delivers more shrewd nuances and beats that emits a Spock struggling between his stoic, unaffected penchant for logic and the almost insultingly rudimentary quality of emotion. The supporting cast, as well, all put in their best efforts to solidify their place in the cast. Karl Urban's frantic temperament as Dr. McCoy makes a marvelous comic foil against every character. The late Anton Yelchin's performance as Chekov feels eerily prescient, submerging into his character with every ioda of his heart, as if he knew it was his swan song. Cho and Saldana are serviceable, despite being massively underused. Idris Elba as Krall shows a proficient flexibility, being able to glide between being campy and humane.

In ranking the films, I feel that the process of ranking is irrelevant, as all fire on all possible cylinders to convey each of their distinctly amiable intentions. The first film was excellent in establishing the identity and image of this new franchise, as well as pleasing itself and us as a popcorn film experience. The second film, in my personal opinion, focused more on weaving thorough, complete emotional tapestries. This film takes the traits of the first two and meshes it with an ambitious, meticulously crafted story with thought and soul. It delivers on the nostalgia and vigor that Trekkies hope to be presented with. Now, off I go to woefully procrastinate watching the original Star Trek shows. I mean, the animated one counts, right? Right...?

RATING: Three-and-a-half stars out of four

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Secret Life of Pets (2016)

Oh, how the wailing rants of wannabe critics amuse me! You know what I'm referring to. Those petulant, pedantic, crybaby, YouTube marauders who confuse volume and passion for validity and reason (A.K.A. the crowd that ignited an Internet typhoon over the new Ghostbusters film). As much as I lambasted actions of this nature in my Force Awakens review, I surprisingly consider the backlash behind The Secret Life of Pets even more inexplicable. This film is widely being considered a rip-off of Toy Story. Yes, specifically the first one. Before I reveal and dissect the fallacies of this criticism, let me start off with the most eloquent summation of my stance I can muster: Fuck off and sit on it!

Let's begin with the plot. The film begins with a dog, Max, who has lived nothing but a blissful existence since he was adopted as a puppy by a young woman, Kate. One day, Kate returns home from work with Duke, a new dog she has chosen to adopt. Unfortunately, the two dogs seem to clash, each struggling to exert their own power. After a skirmish between them at a park, they find themselves lost, stripped of their collars. While trying to return to their comfortable home, they find themselves entangled with a group of vengeful rebel animals, spearheaded by an aggressive, bloodthirsty (figuratively, of course. Kid's film!) rabbit. Additionally, they have support from Max's friends, who set out to search for him and Duke, while encountering a lonely hawk and a crippled Basset hound.

 OK, so let's get down to business! This film is not blatant creative robbery. While admittedly, the conceit of a protagonist, who possesses many friends who revere him highly, struggling to adjust to having to share his existence with someone who makes him question his own standing, leading to a scuffle that separates them from their natural state of living, forcing them to bond on a quest to return to their regular lives...*exhale*...does share some similarities with the first Toy Story film. What these detractors are failing to recollect is that many crucial elements from that film (i.e. a sadistic antagonist who reconfigures his subjects, the friends staying behind, waiting patiently for the return of our two feuding heroes, the mere fact of the new addition being more popular and respected than the original) have no place in this film.

The infuriating facet of the controversy is that these nitpicky, provoking critics can't even distinguish the right film. Aspects from this film (i.e. the friends on a journey to rescue their friends, rejects warning homegrown, content characters about domestic life, an instance of a character being tragically parted from his original owner, the mere fact that all of this happens with their owners being none the wiser) are aspects that can be Toy Story 2! Even if their rip-off theory was sound and sensible, they focused on the wrong target. This must be the most incompetent quasi-mass hysteria I have ever witnessed against a movie.

Besides, it seems as if these nostalgia guardians fail to realize that virtually every film has remnants of other films. Why don't we penalize Precious because of its similarities to The Color Purple while we're at it? Hell, the basic conceit of having to compete for respect with a new addition in their life can be seen in several other films (Stuart Little and Garfield: The Movie instantly come to mind). Do you even have any awareness of The Seven Basic Plots? Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations? Tobias' 20 Master Plots? A simple two-minute Google session might ease the pain for you. If there is any overriding pain, mind you (refer to my statement about a quasi-mass hysteria). I understand repetition and banality in cinema and that there is a shred of predictability in almost every film ever constructed, but there's one key ingredient that this film happens to have, which assists in helping any film overcome the death grip of existing platitudes: life.

One of this film's strengths is its ability to craft vibrant, particular personalities for its characters and fuse them impeccably with their voice actors. While Max's characterization can occasionally be somewhat thin, I was impressed by his oft wry sensibilities, abandoning the sort-of simplistic vulnerability that usually limits this type of protagonist, perfectly complimenting Louis C.K.'s dry, quick-witted style. Eric Stonestreet's Duke is actually much more vulnerable, actually possessing an authentic motivation to compete and/or overshadow Max and Stonestreet exudes the precise level of warmth and sincerity needed for the role. 

The chilled-out Buddy and hyperactive Mel totally correlate with their respective voice actors (Hannibal Burress and Bobby Moynihan) and Jenny Slate, in the midst of her increasing security and aplomb as an actress, immerses herself in the excessive good nature and innocent courage of Gidget. Tiberus, the hawk, is gruff, but has a hint of hopeless disaffection that aligns quite well with his voice actor, Albert Brooks, and Dana Carvey's amiability, with a surprising touch of acerbity, is put to fine use as the elderly Basset hound, Pops.

The two standouts, in my eyes, are Chloe and Snowball. As a person who predominantly grew up with cats, Chloe's self-absorbed, cynical, albeit clumsy disposition is highly evocative and identifiable for me and Lake Bell, who always emits an aura of deadpan self-involvement, compliments it spectacularly. As for Snowball, he can be seen as a broad allegory for the Black Lives Matter movement, seeing how he is introduced in the same window of time when dogcatchers are referred to as the "po po," he demands his movement include individuals that will help, not hinder his cause, if you will, and he's voiced by an African-American actor (Hi, Kevin Hart). Between this and Zootopia, it affirms my notion that modern cartoon media is trying to be more progressive, subversive, and transcendent. Anyhow, his ferocious energy and flexible emotional range is pitched so that neither Hart's voicework nor the writing (credit to returning players Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul, and Ken Daurio) are emphasized overtly over the other. What we have is a pitch-perfect example of what can happen when you understand how to properly transfer a comedian's temperament and integrity to cinema.

These bright, colorful characters paired with the spry, energetic writing make a concoction that produces big laughs. Furthermore, there is a high quantity of life present in the animation. The character designs relentlessly pleasant and unique and the 3D is highly impressive. 3D has made me swerve and duck before, but this time, there were several occasions, mostly involving snakes, that made me back up in my seat. The animation also manages to make a character out of its location, New York City. The lighting, the colors, the multitude of buildings, and minute details, such as the autumn leaves, all make for an anomaly: a summer film that actually has more than enough in common with a fall cinematic release. The lush, jazzy score also does a lot to personify the city, thanks to the masterful, yet shockingly underrated, Alexandre Desplat. While he has earned a number of honorable accolades, I believe his name should cause a reaction with as much instinctive viscera for Williams, Zimmer, Giacchino, Elfman, etc.

As much as I contribute nothing but praise, it's not at the apex of animation. The first third is a little slow to start out, offering humorous jokes, but not a very strong sense of footing or direction and some jokes that don't resonate strongly. In addition, the pacing and effort thrown into the humor unfortunately stunts any impact and momentum in instances where the filmmakers try to pull off drama. Any dramatic attempts usually are too predictable and awkwardly handled. Also, as enjoyable as the 3D is, there are times where it is not fully in-focus, thus displaying a blurriness at times that can become distracting. Regardless, this film has an adequate amount of personality and flair that should, in my opinion, automatically disqualify this film as being the ravenous rip-off that some misguided inciters are trying to make it out to be. Either way, Secret Life of Pets, you got a friend in me.

RATING: Three out of four stars

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Whiplash (2014)

Context. To me, reviewing movies is all about context. Context within the genre, context of the time the film was made, and, at times, the context of your own opinions, perspectives, and sensibilities. As Jean-Luc Godard once said, “In order to criticize a movie, you must make another movie.” I don’t exactly know how I would react to last year’s Whiplash if I wasn’t an aspiring performer/artist. Regular folk might see this film as the stock, stale tale of the young performer who thinks he is so great, but has to work hard to truly the best, with the “help” of a demanding guide, who will push the young grasshopper to his limits. Or her, in the case of The Next Karate Kid. Hell, there’s a chance that I may not have responded to it, to the extent that I did, if it hadn’t clicked with me as it did. I don’t know. I do know that right here, right now: Whiplash is one of the best movies I have ever seen.

The film centers around a young man named Andrew Niemann, who is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory music school. His instrument of choice is the drums. His dream is ostensibly to be as big as his idols, Charlie Parker, Joe Jones, and Buddy Rich. The film however plops us right at the beginning of the major focal point of the film. It begins with Niemann practicing the drums when in comes teacher Terrence Fletcher. Immediately, he presents himself as a complex, sharp individual, getting on Niemann’s case about why he starts and stops playing in Fletcher’s presence. However, Fletcher is impressed enough that he brings Niemann into his studio band, which performs at competitions that are always won by Fletcher. It is then that Fletcher presents himself as not merely complex, but challenging, strict, and profoundly volatile, which takes its toll on Andrew. Through all these tribulations and struggles, Niemann has to fight for his dream.

Now, the way I described the plot makes this trite conceit sound much more intense than the average fare of this ilk. Well, that’s is. For such a simple story, screenwriter Damien Chazelle holds nothing back. He puts our protagonist in situations that completely transcends the sanitized, maudlin tendencies of other films of this type. Consider a scene where Andrew Niemann is supposed to arrive onstage at 5:00 before the beginning of a jazz competition. He ends up having to get a rental car, but still arrives minutes late. Fletcher, of course, gets fiercely angry. However, Niemann discovers he left his drumsticks at the rental car place, so he has to rush back and get them, angering Fletcher even more. Niemann does this, but then, right before he can arrive back to the area of the competition at a reasonable time, a truck crashes right into him, flipping the car. Determined, however, he climbs out of the car, stumbles to the area of the competition, bloody, sweaty, and exhausted. His mental state is so weary and frazzled, but stalwart that he pushes through, but during rehearsal, he still ends up making mistakes, to the point where he has to sit out, which leads to even more conflicts.

Chazelle’s take on this repetitious story is gritty, gut-wrenching, and uncompromising. We see the true struggle of working your way to your major objective, complete with all the blood and completely devoid of the heavenly saviors who speak in forced, cliched nuggets of wisdom or the fantastical, superficial, convenient glimmers of hope that lead to a predictable, pseudo-triumphant happy ending. Technically, the ending isn’t per se a downer, but it isn’t played safe. The conclusion is refreshing and well-earned, complete with one of the most exhilarating, heart-pounding drum solos I have ever seen not merely in cinema, but in life, in general. Not only does Chazelle strikes the right tone in his screenplay, but his dialogue? Oh, my freaking God! I haven’t seen his previous effort, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, but if his dialogue in that film is anything like it is in this film, Chazelle is a guy you need to watch out for. His dialogue is so incisive, colorful, and full of life, be it his wonderful insults (some of the best I have ever seen in film) or the intricate, thoroughly-developed words of his characters.

On that note, let’s talk about these characters. And by characters, I mean the acting. Miles Teller has slowly been building up his repertoire in Hollywood, but if you thought all of that hard work culminated in his performance in The Spectacular Now...well, I actually haven’t seen that one yet, so maybe it did. I do know that if that film introduced him to the masses, this film is what will cement in into the collective consciousness. It’s astounding that even in the teeny-bopper, pretty-boy, ABC Family era of young male adult acting, we can still get actors like Miles Teller, who treat acting like it should be treated: seriously, showing a competence and virtuoso that will definitely allow him to stick around when the DiCaprio’s and Cooper’s and Damon’s of the world die off. He gives such an subtle, sincere performance as Andrew Niemann, actually selling us his story and his plight as opposed to just walking around as a dumbstruck, gullible, wind-up toy, strangling us with his shallow geniality, in order to exude likeability. Paul Reiser, in one of his biggest roles in over a decade, turns in a quiet yet affecting performance as Niemann’s father. Melissa Benoist plays Nicole, Andrew’s love interest, and she has an allure and sensitivity about her that might lead to her getting a starring role of her own. I sure hope so.

However, the standout, of course, is JK Simmons as Terrence Fletcher. From the first frame, he commands our attention. And it is masterful and astonishing the way he convincingly and seamlessly strikes every beat: stern, inviting, demanding, annoyed, warm, and most of all, passionate. Simmons does not merely bring life into this role; he gnashes this role, chews it up, and spits it back out, before giving a casual, affirmative bow to the audience. He can make the hair stand up on your neck and then make you laugh afterwards, and then after that, make you think. What an acting job!

The writing and the acting really bring the characters of Andrew and Terrence to life. The extraordinary thing about these characters is that, throughout the entire film, they manage to not only be likable, but identifiable. Andrew Niemann is the type of character who puts his dream before anything else, but we sympathize with him all the way. Consider a scene where after his family pays little attention to his dreams, he brutally patronizes his family’s aspirations, putting his dreams on a higher level of importance than others. Or a scene where he breaks up with Nicole, in order to focus on honing his craft. Or when he feels obligated to be the major drummer in the studio band. In any other actor’s hand, Andrew would come across as arrogant, but in this context, it is perfectly understandable, because he has that fire, that willpower, and he can’t let that die. He puts in the work and he wants to receive credit and he will totally attack you, in order to obtain the proper credit, which, for me at least, made me appreciate the character more.

The same goes with Fletcher. Some who see this film may only focus on how much of an asshole he is. And some who see his character as the basic archetype of the guy who is only harsh to push his pupils may just see him as a walking cliche. While it is a typical, rote justification underneath, the execution adds more to the role. Consider a scene where Andrew and Terrence are talking to each other at a club after some unfortunate circumstances. Terrence acknowledges his own histrionic, hostile style, but is unapologetic about it. However, it isn’t the kind of easy, self-esteem building, proud moment, like in other films. The only pity he feels is for himself. He doesn’t feel misunderstood, he is misunderstood. It’s so obvious that, again, you feel more respect for the character, despite his danger of tarnishing that in the following scene.

That’s the genius of the film. Both of these characters extend beyond the constraints of their stereotypes and not only come on top as real people, but as people worth caring about. Their actions are authentic and reasonable. Throw in the fabulous location of New York and the amazing cinematography, which comprises mostly of brilliantly dull, realistic hues of yellow, particularly in the class scenes, which heighten the sense of atmosphere, setting, and tone. Every element in this film is crafted assiduously and sharply. You go along with the film and then it instantly, rapidly dawns on you what an eloquent stroke of a film Chazelle has made. I wouldn’t call it a whiplash, but more so a rush; a rush to the senses, to the mind, and to the film industry, a rush that, in these simple, stagnant times of filmmaking, is so desperately needed.

RATING: Four out of four stars!

Central Intelligence (2016)

You know, Kevin Hart has all the right in the world to be apathetic. I’m not saying he is, by any means. He still possesses all the passion and elan, as he did when he was a B-lister. I think that deep down, he knows that he can fall back into a lull, into a wall of inactivity and obscurity. And given his style and his approach to stand-up, which is beloved by me, might I add, I think he’s picking any script that feels accessible and easy. He’s not making audacious decisions and he doesn’t necessarily need to.

I am moreso referring to the inordinate demand that Kevin Hart has experienced. As an African-American comedian blessed with that urban energy being unfortunately placed in a brisk, bustling environment, he averages three films a year. This year, he has four film projects, including his upcoming stand-up film. Even with his more forgettable efforts, he has at least one film a year that, no matter what, would allow him to rest comfortably on his laurels, coasting financially, in addition to other films and television projects in his oeuvre.

It’s that sheer overexposure that, while may not morph Hart as apathetic, has turned me apathetic, which is a shame. Let Me Explain, while not having as many big laughs as his first three stand-up films, is still my favorite, because not only is it more consistently funny, but it also serves as a landmark; a testament to how far he has come in the industry. It acted as his graduation and promotion to an A-list celebrity. I want to provide him that allegiance. However, Hollywood’s attempts to write for Hart quite often result in relentless mediocrity. So, couple him with the enduring, multi-layered genre of...the buddy film, add in a competent actor who’s well past his prime, and integrate that with a script and story developed by a former MAD TV cast member, whose credits include Disaster Movie. Voila! Central Intelligence is produced, a film that has...moderate intelligence. Nothing more.

The film begins twenty years ago in 1996. Let that sink in. Dwayne Johnson is Robert Weirdicht (if you don’t get it, say it out loud, but it still won’t be funny), a massively overweight student, who is the victim of bullying. Kevin Hart is Calvin “Golden Jet” Joyner, an extremely popular student. While Calvin receives an award, a nude Robert, fresh out the school shower, is humiliated in front of the entire student body, with Calvin giving him the only shred of respectability and sympathy. Flash forward to present time, Calvin is an accountant, fed up with the humdrum beast that is his life. Days before his dreaded twentieth high school reunion, he reunites with Robert, now known as Bob Stone. Bob quickly ignites a bond with Calvin. Unfortunately, it gets complicated and crazy when it is revealed that Bob is wanted by the CIA and forces Calvin into assisting him via his accounting skills.

Let me get this out of the way right now. The acting is not one of my quibbles with this film. Hart, while at times seeming desperate, never comes across as detached. He does his best, just nothing spectacular. Johnson, on the other end of the spectrum, is quite fascinating in his performance. He puts a unique bent on his beefy, tough-guy character by implementing a raw sensitivity, unaffected idiosyncrasy, and even some clingy, creepy undertones. It’s the closest thing to a thick, intricate character this film as. All other characters are stock cut-outs, but their respective actors portray them competently.
Additionally, this film does have some laughs. I would say roughly 40-45% of the film is genuinely humorous. The highlight, in my opinion, is a bit where Bob becomes a therapist for Calvin and his wife. It’s a perfect marriage of timing, set-up, delivery, and punchlines. It’s a great bit of comedy that had me laughing uproariously for its duration of approximately three minutes. Additionally, when the film incorporates one of the former high school bullies into the story, it’s a hilarious cameo that I will not spoil for you. On the flipside, the film ends on an asinine, useless cameo, which uh…

...yeah, this seems like the perfect route to discuss the fundamental problem with the film. The humor is highly inconsistent and empty. Some jokes have a weak set-up, but a decent punchline. Some jokes have a solid set-up, but an anemic punchline. However, most of the time, the jokes don’t even resonate. To visualize it, if the writers were slinging these jokes at the wall, some would stick, some wouldn’t, but a majority would vanish in mid-air, failing to leave any remnant or scent of humor. In many cases, Hart has to employ his over-exaggerated delivery in a frantic attempt to elevate the material and translate it to humor, but more often than not, it proves to be dissonant.

Because of this trait, the film is actually rather plodding. What’s worse is that many times, it takes itself so seriously. Unfortunately, it leaves us with utterly customary action sequences, a torrent of overblown, unnecessary plot twists and double-crossings, and sappy, maudlin moments about bullying, friendship, being happy with life, and…*snore* *snore* *snore*

Ironic, given how many people rave that the aspects of bullying were the best part of the film. I personally disagree. There was nothing in this film that dealt with bullying that hasn’t been seen in a wide variety of media, done infinitely better, might I add. It’s nothing new, which is the best way to describe this film. It’s an uninspired, drudging, forcibly bipolar, average experience. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, but it’s about as good as a film of this type can be, which, let’s be real, is not very. I can’t say it wasted my time, but it didn’t deliver anything fresh. If you’ve seen Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs. Rush Hour, or, hell, even The Heat, you’ve basically seen everything that this film offers. Unless you’re going to provide some interesting flavoring, all I’m receiving is the same old water from the same old well.

RATING: Two out of four stars

Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

You know, it’s rather confusing where we draw the line in adapting works of literature to film. I’m referring moreso to how we can adapt literature to film. I mean, I guess novels that have been regarded as the “greatest American novels” theoretically deserve the pedant notion that the adaptation should resemble the source material to the letter, but then what’s to be said for the blasé approach for adaptations of older children’s books? Isn’t that classic literature? It may not be as conceptually stimulating or as intellectually enlightening, but don’t they have ideals, locales, and characters that have endured and been touted for generations? Shouldn’t the stories of J.M. Barrie or L. Frank Baum be preserved as delicately as Steinbeck or Bradbury?

 Certainly, but we seem to have more confidence in taking more creative liberties with those than with other acclaimed classics. I’m not even talking about succinct Golden Books or even the fairy tales of Grimm or Andensen. I mean, full-length chapter books for children. Do we have trouble tracking the initial history of the source material due to the sundry of re-imaginings? Or have we just accepted the high amount of interpretations that trying to find any overriding constraints or cohesive link would be futile? I guess that last thesis is perhaps the most pertinent.

I reference this because I have not read any of the Carroll novels. I concede I am not as acquainted with as much literature as I aspire. However, there are a slew of different angles taken on Wonderland that I instead prefer to judge this film on not how it covers the territory, but what it adds to it. Besides, if I held this film against the standards of the source material, then the original Alice Through the Looking Glass would be the best bedtime regiment since a teaspoon of Melatonin.

The film begins with Alice returning to London after a three-year stint as a sea captain. Why? Because I guess they had to attempt somehow to turn Alice into a feminist icon, because, well shit, Mia Wasikowska ain’t gonna do it. Anyhow, she returns to find Hamish, her former fiance, has forced his dominance over her late father’s company. In what essentially a retread of the first film, she is faced with a decision she’s uncomfortable with (this time being whether or not to sell her ship or keep their home), her innocence and purity is transcendent over all of the townsfolk, yet no one understands and she finds her solace after entering a portal to Narnia…er…Wonderland…er…Underland.

However, her charming reunion is cut short, as the Mad Hatter longs for his family and Alice is sent on a time-travel expedition, which leads to her being fiercely pursued by the Red Queen and by Time itself (or a flamboyant Sacha Baron Cohen, however you perceive).

I actually quite enjoyed the 2010 Tim Burton film. I felt that he delivered a twisted, warped perspective and vision to a legacy that could easily be interpreted as “children’s books for the stoner soul.” I felt that the alterations made by Burton and returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton actually, contrary to half of popular opinion, enhanced his interpretation and gave Wonderland a darker majesty, dignity, and gravity to it. That said…I get it. I get the arguments against it. I could easily imagine being in that category of individuals. And to be honest, a number of the prevalent flaws were there.

One of the biggest issues of the film was that there was no emotional core or connection to any of the characters. They were thorough, poppy, stylized caricatures meant to entertain, not empathize with. However, in the context of Burton’s world, it worked well. And for better or worse, it did spark a renaissance of putting a modern, fresh spin on Disney classics. We may not have had The Jungle Book without Wonderland, at least not for a while.
 This film is relentlessly boring. In reiteration, I liked the characters of the first film in spite of their shallow characterizations, not because of it. Because of that fact, I was virtually unable to invest myself emotionally, viscerally with any of them. Any other supporting characters seem more like half-baked conceits or lavishly reconfigured stock characters. The dialogue, from the intro to the coda, is ripe with expository, by-the-numbers statements and speeches about truth, love, family, integrity, and on and on with no brio.

The tragedy is that there is a massive amount of effort in this film, but to what avail? The actors do all they can with the material given. Despite the Red Queen being portrayed in a more overblown and obnoxious manner than the first film, Helena Bonham Carter has that panache to it. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is left to his own devices, which work mind you, but a director’s devices come in handy, as well. Mia Wasikowska as Alice is obedient, albeit mechanical. She doesn’t have the power or personality to go above a typical leading lady fantasy role. Anne Hathaway feels stiff this time around as the White Queen.

All these actors are on display without a firm hand or any confidence craft. I blame James Bobbin, whose only qualification is direction the two Muppets reboots and assisting Cohen in Da Ali G years. His direction is confused, his mindset timid, and his temperament is desperate. He’s outside his breadth and it shows. Even the visuals can’t compensate. The set designs are shockingly tawdry. There was hardly ever a moment where I bought that this wasn’t a soundstage or green-screen effect. The CGI hardly flourishes either, because very little has been added to this world. Attempts at humor are flat, awkward, and uninspired and the chase scenes are, overall, phenomenally rote. It just relies on a feeble, humdrum plot about time travel and family.

I can’t call it a complete lost cause. There are a few funny moments here and there, the final chase scene is undoubtedly the best part of the film, and the final moment between Alice and the Hatter was quite tender and heartfelt. Overall, however, this remains a curious product indeed. Why make this movie at all? Actually, I know the answer already, but why squander it? Why try to add a heart to the movie without adding soul to these characters? Why infuse a world not with versatility, but with primary vacuousness.

I mean, you can make the argument that Disney seems to fear the live-action genre, therefore audiences feeling more the artistic freedom and ecstasy in their animated fare, but I think we’re past the point of making that hypothesis. Sure, we have always had live-action Disney movies more magical than others, but we have seen directors demonstrate that there are no boundaries for Disney, not even in live-action. So why limit yourself? Whatever amount of demented spirit that was present in Burton’s Wonderland is predominantly eradicated. It’s technical, distant, cold, and much like Alice in the first film, lost.

RATING: Two out of four stars

Finding Dory (2016)

The idea of a short film is common, almost warmed-over by today’s standards, but if there is one company that manages to keep it alive and transcendent, it’s PIXAR. Their recent short film, Piper, is one of the most amiable, lushest, and sweetest PIXAR shorts to date. As well, its place with the succeeding full-length feature is insidiously fitting. It’s thematically united, yet externally, executionally disparate, which is peculiar, because the film that follows presents the loftiest ambitions and dutiful responsibilities in a PIXAR film since…hell…Toy Story 3. Furthermore, it’s placed directly after what may arguably be the year of PIXAR; the year where PIXAR both invigorated and inadvertently alienated their audience. This year, however, it’s time to find Dory!

The film begins with exposition for America’s favorite, forgetful, scatter-brained fish. It shows her as a child, struggling with her short-term memory loss, under the guarding yet supportive hands…er…fins of her parents. However, when she gets separated from her family, she goes on a seemingly endless trek to look for them. She can barely remember the subject of her destination, but she has a deep-rooted insight that she has one. She keeps going, until she finds a boat overhead, which soons leads to her, literally, bumping into a clownfish. One who, coincidentally, has also lost a member of his family, specifically…his son, Nemo.

One year later (or following the events of Finding Nemo, for us initiated spectators), Dory is living next door to Marlin and Nemo (next door, because, you know…the anemone). When Dory accompanies Nemo’s class, as a self-appointed “teacher’s assistant,” on a trip to discuss stingray migration, Dory begins to feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu; an empty spot that hasn’t be filled. Soon after, she remembers that she has a family and she resumes her search for them, with Marlin and Nemo accompanying her, but after a fight with Marlin, she gets separated from the gang, still adamantly pursuing her aspiration to find her family, while Marlin and Nemo are out…finding Dory. *rimshot*

For about three-and-a-half years, this was my most anticipated and frightening PIXAR project. Finding Nemo is not only the third film I ever saw in a theater (The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, for the record), but it has consistently secured a spot in my top five favorite PIXAR films of all time. Its gorgeous animation, brisk, vibrant, persistently humorous script, simple, effective emotion, and colorful, winsome characters make it a film that has always found consistent viewing throughout my life. The way the film ended didn’t, in my mind, warrant a sequel. And once I found it would dominate around Dory, I thought of it as an appalling cash grab, merely inteding to capitalize and profetize off a character guaranteed to allure an audience.

The thing is that Finding Dory doesn’t really set out to outdo the original film. Outside of an awe-inspiring octopus early on, the animation is rather standard. The new character designs are pleasant, but not anything that’s per se innovative or particularly surprising. Overall, it’s rather restrained. And you know what? That’s the brilliance of this film. For a company known for audacious story strokes and trancesdent animation, playing a sequel to one of the best PIXAR films, critically and financially, predominatly straightforward is one of the boldest achievements PIXAR has accomplished.

All you really need to do to totally satisfy the audience is show us the characters we are more than accustomed to. This film fulfills on that level. Its callbacks to original supporting characters are terse yet liberating and it establishes new characters with distinct personalities and genuine warmth.

Hank is the typical cynically driven, self-focused type of character Disney has done before, but pairing him up with Dory brings out the perfect juxtaposition. The majority of the film takes place in the Marine Life Institute and while Dory merely wishes for a reunion with her family, Hank, a septapus (he’s missing a leg), wishes to stay in captivity in Cleveland. In a genre where most films deal with release, it is astounding to see a character who longs for containment.  It’s not to comment on the moral inquiries related to capitivity, but just merely to give a refreshing slant on a character type. He favors security over freedom. The whales, Destiny and Bailey, are basic, but genial and add some nice comedy to the film. Some of the biggest laughs come from three sea lions, all of whom battling over inhabiting the top of a rock, and a bird named Becky.

But most of all, it gives attentive precision to the main characters, with every beat, nuance, feeling, and piece of dialogue being impeccably timed to completely satisfy each character’s sensibilities and weaknesses. Marlin seems to act more as a side character this time, but it is applicable because it isn’t his journey anymore. He is merely a piece of Dory’s journey, both physically and emotionally. Consider a scene near the beginning where an annoyed Marlin comments that Dory is good at forgetting. Of course, his intentions weren’t malicious, but he considers himself an emotional backbone, because he’s so technical and tentative. In some ways, despite his heart, he does more to inhibit Dory than encourage her. He believes he needs to be her guardian, so she has some stability, and that somehow his frustration is bringing some sanity into her existence, which is a very realistic attitude that some possess when interacting with children with disabilities.

Speaking of which, Dory’s characterization, while not original, is textured, resonant, and extremely appropriate. How her disability is portrayed is actually the singular aspect that outdoes the first film, all the while not feeling contrived or excessively maudlin. Her optimism and internal logic and principles was a key facet of the first film, but here as a main character, it proves to have even greater heft because she should be more lost, naïve, and helpless. Deep down, she knows that, but she also is aware that her method of survival isn’t to cripple or pity herself, but to instead…be herself. She may have limited memory, but she is staunch in her self-worth. As such, she ends up outsmarting people arguably more intelligent and stable than her.

As well, DeGeneres has stepped up as a main voice actor. She was an unmitigated delight in the first film and she revives it here, delivering an unaffected energy in her comedic sections and delivering a frail, delicate vulnerability to her emotional moments. Albert Brooks continues his phenomenal work as Marlin and newcomer Hayden Rolence delivers a flawless vocal performance as Nemo, replacing original voice actor Alexander Gould, who has a cameo role that did a complete flyby over my head. Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Idris Elba are a few of the many actors that bring their own charm and enthusiasm to their roles, along with another glorious cameo that…well, if you know me, I hate spoiling, so…

We are living in a time where we seem to be in much greater of a hurry to reconnect with our nostalgia, which presumably explains the increase of time gaps between sequels. Out of all the belated sequels we have received, Finding Dory, while having a huge legacy to keep in mind, seems to have the simplest of goals: to entertain. In doing so, the film, spearheaded by PIXAR regular, Andrew Stanton, ends up, in my opinion, accomplishing more than a lot of our belated sequels. Again, personal bias definitely has a lot to do with my admiration of it, but this film truly goes for entertaining again, just adding a hint more substance to seem artistically dignified yet culturally pertinent. And it works. The film ends on one of the most poetic final moments in a film, which is linked to the Drop-Off. A location with so much anguish, uncertainty, and fear is instead treated as cathartic and resplendent. How fitting. Many sequels have been known to desecrate on the original likeness by studio imbeciles ravenous for money. This, like many recent sequels, have taken the horror of the sequel territory and provided solace and unadulterated elation. One year later? More like thirteen years later, jackasses!

RATING: Four out of four stars!