Category Archives: Films

‘Inside Out’ a heartfelt journey

Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) is a transcendent film destined to be a classic.

The movie tells the story of all the goings-on in the mind of a 12-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), each of her emotions represented by distinct characters: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). After moving from Minnesota to San Francisco, Riley’s life is thrown into turmoil, all of her emotions unsure what to make of her new surroundings. Joy tries to remain positive and keep Sadness from intruding into Riley’s life, but things take a drastic turn when Sadness and Joy are thrown deep into Riley’s subconscious.

What could have been a gimmick instead turns into a thoughtful reflection on growing up and recognizing the need to feel all emotions. Featuring funny twists on common expressions and universal experiences of love, loss and friendship, the film is able to connect to the audience on a special level as we all see ourselves through Riley.

Director Pete Docter, having previously directed other Pixar films such as Up (2009) and Monster’s Inc. (2003), returns to many of the same tropes that made those films so successful: returning gags, justifiable set ups and payoffs, interesting characters and heart above all else, even if taken to the nth degree. For every laugh, there is a tear. That has always been Pixar’s style, and it is what serves them best.

Inside Out is the film that audience’s have long deserved since Pixar’s heyday of the 2000s. Funny, heartfelt and important not just for children but also adults, it is a monumental achievement.

 

‘The Intern’ is breezy fun

Many people will complain that The Intern is not deep enough or pervasive enough. They will say it is too sentimental and trivializes real issues about marriage and careerism. All their arguments are valid, but they are also missing the point of a Nancy Meyers movie. The writer-director of films such as It’s Complicated (2009), Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and What Women Want (2000) isn’t known for making edgy, topical films. She makes enjoyable, rom-com fluffy movies. So yes, the story of a retiree working as an intern for a female boss in Brooklyn could have been more reflective and a modicum for our current times, but if you go into the theater expecting a Nancy Meyer’s movie, you’ll have a good time.

Robert DeNiro stars as Ben, a retired widower. On a whim, he gains an internship for a clothing line run by Jules (Anne Hathaway), a woman trying to juggle a burgeoning business while still being a mother. Her marriage with her stay-at-home husband Matt (Anders Holm) is suffering because of her addiction to work, an addiction that may force her to consider hiring a new CEO for the company. She looks down at Ben since he is 70 years old, but Ben does not give up on her, seeing the seams of her life start to unravel. He works hard and gains her friendship, helping her sort through her issues with her job, her marriage and her relationship with her young daughter.

If it sounds wishy-washy, it is. That’s okay. Nobody makes rom-coms anymore. You have summer blockbusters, dramatic Oscar winners, teen romances, animated films and dumb comedies. That’s all that gets made now. So perhaps The Intern is just a passable comedy, nothing better than a few laughs for a more mature crowd. It’s still a few laughs more than you would get at The Green Inferno which opened on the same day.

The internal politics of the film are also highly questionable. Without giving too much away, feminism takes a sort of half-hearted victory lap, taking a win in one subplot and getting lopped in another. There was really an opportunity to show a strong, independent woman CEO standing up for herself which sort of happens in the film, but that kind of determination also occasionally requires sacrifices and Hathaway’s character doesn’t need to make any.

In addition, the idea that the older generation did things more nobly than the current generation is also somewhat groan-worthy. Some things may be true (a loss of human interaction in today’s workplace) while others are not (the inherent sexism and racism). Ben could have been on just as much of a journey as Jules, learning about how certain things done today improve upon things done yesterday, learning how to take orders from a woman for the first time in his life. However he already starts the movie having learned all this. In effect, he is perfect and not that dynamic (similar to Keanu Reeves in Something’s Gotta Give).

Anne Hathaway works in the film, but Robert DeNiro really stars. He is highly relatable, has perfect comic timing and brings the best out of the rest of the cast. It is hard to believe that he once played vicious killers in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Goodfellas (1990), but it just goes to show you that he is one of the greatest actors of our time.

The Intern will make you laugh. It will not make you cry. It does not stick with you or make you think. It is an enjoyable night out. Is that really so terrible?

 

‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ a disappointment

The X-Men films vary all over the map from very good (Days of Future Past) to okay (The Wolverine) to downright terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It’s a shame that the latest team entry, “Apocalypse”, teeters more towards the latter.

Set ten years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, the film, directed by Bryan Singer, follows a new villain, the dastardly En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant, as he awakens for the first time in thousands of years. Disgusted with the world, he sets about recruiting four followers (horseman) to help him “cleanse” the earth, including Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The only individuals left to stop him are Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), as well as a reunited Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

As the first sequel after the terrific “Days of Future Past”, the film is a giant step back. While that film was dramatic, moving and based in science fiction, “Apocalypse” is silly, overstuffed, action-packed nonsense. You almost have to wonder if that was what the filmmakers were aiming for.

The film takes forever to get going, with the only action really at the end of the film. Starting the film right off the bat would have served the story well. Without giving too much away, Apocalypse needs to gather his horsemen in the first fifteen minutes of the film rather than the first forty-five minutes. He needs to introduce himself to Xavier and the X-Men much sooner, gain his foothold as a dangerous opponent and set the stakes for the rest of the film. Since this confrontation is delayed so long, the film loses steam and the emotional engagement in the final battle is only half of what it should be.

In addition to setting the stakes, a clearer protagonist was needed. If “X-Men: First Class” was primarily Magneto’s story and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was Xavier’s story, I would think that “Apocalypse” would be Mystique’s film. After the events of the previous film, Mystique is balancing the two halves of her consciousness: the desire to do the right thing and her hatred of mankind. When the opportunity arises in “Apocalypse”, she must either follow Charles or Magneto’s way, fight with the X-Men or with Apocalypse. Her decision would fill the film with meaning as she realizes her identity.

Mystique’s arc is briefly mentioned in the film, but it does not carry much emotional weight because of another major flaw; there is simply too much going on. The film simultaneously tries to achieve the following: establish the story of En Sabah Nur and his resurrection and attempt to destroy the world, finish Magneto’s emotional journey reaching back to Auschwitz, conclude the building of the X-Men team as we know it, finish Mystique’s story of self-discovery, show Xavier learning the importance of the X-Men, set-up the next Wolverine movie, introduce younger versions of characters such as Cylcops and Nightcrawler and Jean, bring Quicksilver back and establish a storyline about his patronage and set all this against the backdrop of 1980s Cold War paranoia. There is so much thrown at us that nothing sticks. We can not ride the roller coaster because it is so cluttered.

The story should be focused on a very simple narrative: After centuries trapped underground, a “god” has re-emerged to find that the world is teetering on chaos. He finds disillusioned souls and recruits them to a higher purpose, the need to make a better world. This contrasts starkly with Xavier’s vision of peace and stability, and Mystique is caught in between and must finally make a choice: to save the world or tear it down. She must lead the X-Men, young and full of issues, towards that purpose she cast out long ago.

Everything outside of this plot should be discarded. Magneto, Wolverine and Quicksilver do not need to be in the story. Cyclops, Jean and Nightcrawler could all start at Xavier’s school rather than be recruited, starting the confrontation with Apocalypse sooner. Little things like that cut out five minute scenes that really add more flow to the narrative.

The action at the end makes up for a lot of the doldrums of the beginning, but like most of the film, it is not handled particularly well. There are several enjoyable moments of unintentional comedy mixed in with some interesting action. Seeing the modern X-Men assemble for the first time ties everything together nicely. It’s just a shame it happens in this flimsy, overpacked jumble.

It would certainly appear that Bryan Singer and company, after their fourth film in the franchise, are starved for ideas. New blood in both casting and the creative team should be given a chance to flex their muscles and really explore this world further. “Deadpool” and “Logan” are just reminders that superhero films don’t all have to be cookie-cutter, save-the-world-from-the-evil-mastermind type fare. They can be funny, dramatic, farcical, romantic, action-packed or terrifying. It’s time for the X-Men to establish themselves in a new way. “Apocalypse” is a strong reminder that change is needed.

 

‘Jurassic World’ a so-so reboot that is still plenty of fun

The nostalgia surrounding Jurassic Park (1993) is high. It is the same problem that has plagued franchises such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Terminator. Every time a new entry tries to reawaken long dormant franchises such as these, it has such trouble stacking up against nostalgia. So the deck is already stacked against Jurassic World from the start.

Jurassic Park is the millenial generation’s King Kong (1933), an adventure film that redefined special effects and influenced a generation. While it is certainly far from flawless (the characters are a tad one-dimensional, the ending is a deus ex machina), it is an immersive dinosaur extravaganza that still holds up today.

It is just incredibly difficult to follow up however with something that is not just a rehash of the original. The basic premise has always been man undervalues nature and tries to profit off of it, dinosaurs escape and eat people and man learns a lesson about its place in the world. There are no other story avenues really to explore after that. So Jurassic World is trapped trying to find something new to say while remaining true to its predecessor.

The film really tries. There’s genetic mutation, a fully functioning theme park, training raptors, weaponizing dinosaurs for combat… but at it’s heart, the Jurassic Park franchise has always been about running away from dinosaurs, and there is no escaping that.  However, the film manages to still be fun.

Set 22 years after the events of the original Jurassic Park (the other sequels are pretty much ignored), Jurassic World focuses on Owen (Chris Pratt) as he attempts to train the park’s Velociraptors, and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park department head, and her relationship with her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson). Working behind the scenes, the park’s scientists, seeking to boost sales, have created a genetic hybrid, the Indominus Rex, a creature they quickly lose control of and who goes on a murderous rampage throughout the island.

The characters are pretty cardboard-cut. Real credit should be given to stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard for getting as much as they do out of the script. The rest of the cast are pretty much forgettable dino-food.

Stronger motivations were needed to really punch up the characters. For example, the hybrid is treated as a rather mundane enterprise for the company. It is just an experiment gone bad. What would have really made things more interesting is if business were dropping. There are hints that people have grown stale with dinosaurs, but this could have been accentuated much further. Perhaps the Masrani company that owns the park is falling apart, and Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan), instead of being a relative nice guy as he is in the film, demands the biggest attraction yet, putting all this pressure on Claire to save the park, which pushes her towards tampering with nature in a way never before tried, raising the stakes for everyone associated with the park, their last chance, only for it to blow up in the worst way possible. This would have revealed a bit more about the characters, especially Claire, showing her obsession with her job and why she never has contact with her nephews or family.

Similarly, Owen is also never really given a reason for his attachment to the raptors he trains. He mentions something about being in the Navy and one date with Claire, but it severely lacks in emotional stakes. Perhaps while in the Navy, Owen does something terrible which exposes him to his animal side, a facet of his personality that he sees he has in common with the raptors (think to Quinn’s monologue in Jaws (1975) that reveals something of his character). This bonds them, and he is left to wonder just what part of his personality is real: the animal, which is symbolized by his remoteness and connection to animals, or the human, his caring for others and ability to have a higher moral judgment. And then this dynamic gives him an arc as he works to save Claire from the monster she has created and reveals his humanity.

Director Colin Trevorrow gets some good action out of the story and there are some tense moments, but nothing on scale to the original. Steven Spielberg has always been able to build up suspense and create a moodiness that few other directors can. Whether it be the vibrating glass of water, a tracking shot of a Dilophosaurus approaching a victim or a Velociraptor slowly opening a door handle, these small moments of buildup really add a lot of terror to the original film. Trevorrow is unable or unwilling to use similar cinematic techniques to raise the suspense of his film, keeping viewers from truly being on the edge of their seats.

The expanse of digital technology has often left current filmmakers under the pretense that since they can construct anything they want in a computer, they should. But the absence of real objects, of dirt and rain and grime, creates a hollow feeling, one that Jurassic World is often plagued with. The park is too pristine, the digital effects too plentiful and the atmosphere too placid. It lacks the characters covered in mud, the rainy moodiness and the beads of sweat pouring off of people’s brows that makes things feel real. It seems to be more of a videogame environment than a real location, and this disconnect keeps the audience from really experiencing the park.

Now, having said all that, the primary purpose of a Jurassic Park film is to entertain, and Jurassic World is nothing if not entertaining. It keys in on the nostalgia of the original film to great effect, playing with the conventions of the monster movie and the action movie, poking fun of and admiring them. There are some truly breathtaking moments, such as the pteranodon escape, the gyrosphere sequence, and, above all, the climax. The last twenty minutes of the movie nearly make up for all its flaws along the way, creating the type of dinosaur slug fest that appeals to the inner child of all of those who worship prehistoric beasts. It is worth the price of admission itself.

So, yes, Jurassic World is a deeply flawed film, but it is also a fun one. It is sad to see so many films coming out of Hollywood that are simply “good enough”, that never strive to be the type of jaw-dropping, have-to-see experience like the original Jurassic Park. Those movies no longer seem to be made. Jurassic World is just another cash grab, cashing in on a bygone era, but at least it delivers something close to wonder and amazement. That at least deserves some kudos.

 

“Arrival” a poignant sci-fi experience

There’s something to be said for a good sci-fi film. Many people confuse fantasy and horror with sci-fi. “Star Wars” is fantasy. “The Thing” is horror. “Alien” is horror. Science fiction examines the unknown, tying our natural world and technology to the human condition. It usually asks more questions than it answers. It engages us in the way it views mystery and the cosmos. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is science fiction. “Interstellar” is science fiction. “Ex Machina” is science fiction. And “Arrival” is science fiction, and darn good science fiction at that.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer off a story (Story of Your Life) by Ted Chiang, “Arrival” stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called by the United States government when several alien spaceships descend across the world. Banks must find a way to establish communication with them before the rest of the world goes haywire and carnage ensues.

Language and communication are the foundation for how Adams investigates these creatures and it is thrilling as we view her trying to establish contact. As countries such as Russia and China escalate their paranoia about why the aliens have arrived, the pressure mounts on Adams to figure out what exactly it is the aliens want. To help us? To harm us? One wrong symbol can change the entire course of mankind.

It is especially refreshing to see a film with aliens that is not preoccupied with leveling cities and giving us explosions and battles. “Arrival” examines real-world reality in its science fiction setting. What would China, Russia and the United States do in the event of alien landing? What would the common masses do? How would the pressures build? To see such thought put into a motion picture is nearly a miracle nowadays.

Jeremy Renner as Ian and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber give strong performances, but it is Adams who steals the show. She is able to convey so much with just her eyes, finding the perfect balance between awe, fear and determination.

The ending is near pure cinematic bliss as all the different pieces come together; Louise’s personal journey, what the aliens want, her visions, Ian’s journey, the paranoia of China, whether Louise’s risk-taking was the right move. Without giving anything away, it is the perfect ending of answering some questions, asking a few more and giving us the emotional impact we deserve from a good science fiction film.

 

‘Wonder Woman’ a fine film, but could have been more

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “Wonder Woman” is by far the best film in DC’s extended universe (though in honesty, that’s not much of a hill to climb). Diana (Gal Gadot) lives on Themiscyra, a hidden Amazonian land. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes onto the island, he lets the kingdom know of the great war happening beyond the sea. This appeals to Diana’s sense of duty and she ventures out to save mankind.

Being the most famous superwoman in the world, it’s past due for Diana to get her own film. Gal Gadot has a great balance of strength and earnestness, though a tad too much naivete, but her virtue represents the character well. The action scenes are exciting and it’s refreshing to see a superhero movie tell a superhero story; a hero who really is just trying to save people.

The problem though is that Wonder Woman is a female superhero and her femininity is not pushed for her benefit except in a few brief instances. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, intended for her to be used as a representation of the power of women, and she certainly is in the film by simply kicking ass, but the repressive male world could have been utilized more and in turn boost her message. Perhaps instead of a band of men that go to war with her, she brings together a group of undervalued women and teaches them the ways of combat and of breaking free from their bonds. And the villain could have been accentuated to represent male oppression. Diana’s presence alone carries a lot of weight surely, but her representation as a feminine power symbol could have been far expanded.

The story is rather thin and predictable as well with some on-the-nose language, but the corniness serves the narrative well. After all, when your villain is named Dr. Poison, you shouldn’t take things too seriously. It should be fun.

And as dramatic as the fight scenes sometimes are, the conclusion of the film is another big, dumb, loud battle with lots of explosions and lightning and blah. A simpler conclusion would serve better.

But the character of Wonder Woman is strong and that is the central point. It’s no longer just a boy’s club of superheroes anymore and with the public on her side, pumping millions of dollars into her movie, maybe, finally, female superheroes will be treated with more respect. It’s way past due.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ a sobering look into past and present race relations

Directed by Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” examines the unfinished manuscript of James Baldwin’s Remember This House, a memoir on the author’s recollections of Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film narrates the manuscript while examining the times of the Civil Rights protests and their comparisons to the present.

Samuel L. Jackson’s timber voice reading Baldwin’s memoir adds a rich layer to the narrative. The crosscutting of footage between Baldwin, the Civil Rights leaders, the portrayal of blacks in popular media (Sidney Poitier, black face) and the present day (Ferguson, police beatings, etc) creates an interwoven picture of race relations that make the viewer question how far the country has come.

Baldwin is very astute at being an outsider, being both black and gay, and his commentary on that and what it means is haunting. He delves into the psychosis of both black and white America, the fears and hopes of both and the seeming intractability of reconciling the two mindsets. Is he right? Have we truly achieved post-racial relations since Baldwin’s death? The film argues that the nation is still very much entrenched in racial divisions.

“I Am Not Your Negro” is a well-made documentary that white, black and all audiences can take in. In this era of Trumpism, it examines critical issues worthy of thought and discussion.