Tag Archives: Pixar

“COCO” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Featuring her brave great-grandson, Miguel.

At around this same time last year, I remember a story circulating online about a daughter taking her father to see Rogue One, the most recent film in the expanding Star Wars saga. Her father, who spoke with a rich Mexican accent, noticed that one of the film’s leads Diego Luna also spoke with a thick accent. Her father asked how well the film was received. She said the film was the second highest-grossing movie of 2016, it opened up to critical acclaim, and fans of all ages loved the characters, especially Diego Luna’s Cassian. “My dad was so happy,” she wrote. “As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America.”

I start my review of Coco describing this to show you how films like this can be so important to some people even before they watch the opening credits roll. Coco is a delightful film; colorful, vibrant, and joyous in celebrating Mexican culture and how meaningful it is to the people who represent it. I admittedly know very little about Día de los Muertos (indeed, I struggle to even pronounce it correctly), but I do have friends who celebrate it. When they talk about it, their eyes light up like the candles they leave out for their ancestors during la ofrenda. I can only think of one other time where their eyes might light up as much, and that is while they’re watching Coco.

Following a very large family in the small town of Santa Cecilia, Coco tells the story of the Riveras, a family whose history feels as long as Día de los Muertos itself does. A long time ago, Imelda Rivera (Alanna Ubach) and her daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) is abandoned by her husband to become a musician. Heartbroken by his unfaithfulness, Imelda bans music in her family and opens a shoemaking business, which does so well that it ends up passing from generation to generation.

Enter modern-day Santa Cecilia to Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), the youngest member of the Rivera family. A 12-year-old with dreams as big as his great-great-grandfather’s, Miguel loves music and wants to one day become a musician himself. His family, however, wants him to instead involve himself in their growing business, eventually to become a shoemaker himself. After one circumstance leads to another, Miguel finds himself in Tierra de los Muertos: the land of the dead. Now Miguel has to find a way back home to his family through the power of his guitar and his voice.

Every time I watch one of Pixar’s films, I constantly find myself impressed with what they visually do with the material set at their feet. Last year’s Finding Dory returned us to the sea, immersing us in this landscape of beautiful hues of blue and green, while the previous year’s Inside Out lit up a child’s mind like a McDonald’s Play Place. And yet, Coco remains to be the most visually splendid, lighting up the screen in warm, bright oranges, yellows, and reds as it paints an Autumn-esque vision of the land of the dead. Even in the first frame where we get a wide shot of the realm, I caught myself catching my breath as I watched Miguel doing the same thing while staring starry-eyed at his surroundings. I keep going into Pixar’s movies waiting to get disappointed by the animation. I’m still waiting.

And the music is surprisingly a standout element in the film, not just playing aimlessly in the background, but also serving as an emotional catharsis for the characters, their feelings and expressions. This makes sense since the film is based so much around Miguel’s musical ambitions. Still, I’m impressed at how well it’s done here. Of all of the biggest moments I remember from the film, all of them have something to do with singing and music. Miguel’s rendition of “Un Poco Loco.” Mama Imelda’s cover of “La Llorona.” Even the film’s lead single “Remember Me” nearly brought me to tears. All of it serves not only as a respectful homage to Mexican culture, but also as a deeper means of communication between the characters and their family. Musicals are often an overused cliché in most animated movies. Yet, Coco feels right at home in this stylistic choice.

As always, the biggest problems come in with the third act, which just has to catapult our heroes through pompous over-the-top action sequences that do nothing to raise the stakes or make characters’ actions feel more urgent. Yet, I was surprised to find conveniences in Coco’s third act that I would normally expect to find in another animated studio’s films, say, DreamWorks. The climax involves a series of coincidences that feel silly and removed, misplaced in a movie filled with such phenomenal visual and emotional ambition. I won’t give away what happens out of respect to my readers, but I will pose some rhetorical questions to you, such as:

If you’re surrounded by two alebrije that can fly, doesn’t it make the threat of falling seem less ominous?

If you’re a skeleton that can separate your bones, shouldn’t it be pretty easy to, oh, I don’t know, break away from an attacker?

And if you’re caught in the middle of a stage and are being chased by the bad guy’s goons, wouldn’t your first instinct be to GET OFF THE STAGE instead of breaking out into song and dance like you’re Selena Quintanilla?

The first two acts matched the storytelling and technical expertise that Pixar is well-known for. The third act takes it a drastic step back to being nearly generic. A shame of course, but not surprising. After all, many American audiences prefer pointlessly action-packed climaxes as opposed to more emotionally grounded and meaningful ones. Do these problems speak more to the filmmaker’s flaws or to us as viewers?

Still, for all of its contrivances, Coco remains to be emotionally and visually special: certainly one of the most unique films of the year, and one that does the Día de los Muertos culture justice. Pixar is all about inspiring their audiences with the stories they tell and the characters they create. Here is a wonderful Mexican fable where our young hero learns just how important our family history is and how our ignorance to it can lead to bigger problems. We could all learn a thing or two from Miguel, as well as his sweet Great-Grand-Mama Coco.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

“FINDING DORY” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Just keep swimming.

There is absolutely no reason why a movie called Finding Dory should be this good. Absolutely no reason. The last time Pixar attempted a sequel/spinoff, we got Cars 2, a cheeky and unnecessary addition to the Pixar universe. Finding Dory is equally unnecessary, but the good news is that it knows that. So instead of trying to follow up from its first film, it chooses to focuses on telling its own story rather than trying to expand upon another one. What we get is something truly rare: an animated sequel that is every bit as good as its predecessor. Considering that’s Finding Nemo, I think this is the best possible movie you could have gotten from Finding Dory.

Years before Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) met Marlin (Albert Brooks), Dory was just a baby fish happily playing with her parents. Just as forgetful and funny as her older self is, Dory was trained by her parents to say 10 words to any new fish she meets: “Hi, I’m Dory, and I have short-term memory loss.” (Or “reromry”, as she likes to pronounce it). Happy and comforted around her parents, baby Dory is afraid what might happen if she was ever separated from them, or worse, if she even forgot them.

Fast forward many years later, after the events of Finding Nemo. Dory suddenly remembers her parents and her life before meeting Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). Now determined to find her parents and be reunited again after all these years, Dory, Marlin, and Nemo embark on yet another journey across the ocean to find Dory’s family.

The first time I watched Finding Nemo, I was completely entranced by everything about it. The characters, story, animation, colors, and environments immediately swept me from my theater seat and plunged me 100 feet in the ocean to witness this story about a father and his son. At originally hearing about Finding Dory, all I felt was concern. Minus the Toy Story franchise, Pixar hadn’t handled its sequels as well as its first entries. I was really worried they were about to turn Finding Nemo into a cash-grabber, something that Finding Nemo is worth much more than.

Turns out I had no reason to be worried. Finding Dory is not only a smart homage to its origins, but also a funny, unique, and emotional roller coaster of a film that stands very well on its own two feet (well, fins). The screenplay, co-written by director Andrew Stanton, displays a fine understanding of everyone’s favorite forgetful fish. So fine, in fact, that this movie truly stands on its own, needing almost no support from its previous entry.

Watch the first scenes of Finding Dory closely. Like Finding Nemo, they pull you into the character’s reality and establish an almost immediate connection with your subject. In Finding Nemo, we watched as Marlin lost his wife and most of his children in one of the most tragic openings ever. In Finding Dory, we witness the opposite as a child loses her parents, although not in the same way. The same feeling is established in both cases: a deepened sense of loss, confusion, and grief. You look at baby Dory swimming around aimlessly in the ocean, and you can’t help but feel a deep sense of sympathy for this poor baby fish, alone and with no sense of direction or security.

This sympathy lasts throughout the entire movie, and that’s because Stanton has a clear understanding of Dory and how to get us to care about her. We don’t see Dory as a supporting character in Finding Dory, and we shouldn’t either. This is truly her story, and she appropriately takes center stage as we’re wrapped into her journey and emotions.

I have absolutely no gripes with this film. No criticisms. No recommendations to improve it any further from where it already is now. If we had to compare, then Finding Nemo is clearly superior, but that’s only because we’ve had more time to appreciate it. If Finding Nemo never happened, Finding Dory not only makes sense without it: it stands on its own and functions as its own entry. That’s because Stanton knows how to masterfully guide his audience without manipulating them, and we get caught up into Dory’s story not because we have to, but because we want to.

What we have left is an unchallenged successor to Finding Nemo: a movie that replicates the same appeal of characters, animation, wonder, and amazement as we’re completely engrossed into this story, not once feeling like it’s artificial or incomplete. When Pixar prepares to make the third entry, I officially now want it to be titled Finding Marlin. I trust Pixar enough that they’ll take it in the right direction.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“FINDING NEMO” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Fish are friends, not food.

Reviewing a film like Finding Nemo is an impossible task, because it isn’t meant to be reviewed. It’s meant to be experienced. Like Pixar’s other masterpieces, Finding Nemo finds joy and adventure in seemingly ordinary environments. Toy Story found theirs in a toy box, and A Bug’s Life found theirs in an anthill. Now Finding Nemo plunges into the ocean to tell us a story about family, fatherhood, and friendship. The resulting film is nothing short of Pixar’s best: iconic, entertaining, and meaningful.

After viewing what is perhaps the most heartbreaking opening I’ve ever seen in an animated movie, we are introduced to the film’s key characters. Marlin (Albert Brooks), a deep-sea clownfish, is the single father of Nemo (Alexander Gould), his son who suffers from a short, defective fin. He’s very protective of his son: so much so, that he will hide him away in his anemone, away from the rest of the ocean.

One day, Marlon goes through any parent’s worst nightmare: he sees his son kidnapped by human divers swimming out in the ocean. Now accompanied only by a short-minded regal tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), they set off across the ocean to save Marlin’s son.

The first thing you notice in any Pixar movie is its animation. Vibrant, elegant, and beaming with life, the one thing you can always appreciate about their films is the vivid details of their animation. With Finding Nemo, however, I’d argue that it is the most refined out of Pixar’s other films. This is the fifth film Pixar has produced now, and the fifth time that they’ve captured me with their ambient motions, intricate details, and complex characters. The colors are bright and saturated, reaching out to you in all of its eye-catching graphics and details. The fish feel fresh and alive, briskly swimming through the ocean as if they were real animals. The ocean itself breathes with just as much life as the fish do. Its plants flow in synchronization with the ocean streams, its currents moving like breaths in the ocean. This is easily Pixar’s most visually pleasing film yet, not just because of the colors and motions, but because of how real entire environments feel. This isn’t just an animated ocean: it is the ocean. That’s how authentic it feels and moves.

But the animation isn’t the only beautiful thing about Finding Nemo. Its story is equally breathtaking; simple and straightforward, yet creative and complex. On the surface, we have this father-son dynamic going on in between Marlin and Nemo, which serves as the emotional focal point of the film. In deeper insight, this is a movie about environment conservation and the effect our race is having on fish life.

Take Nemo’s plight as the most pure example of this. After being kidnapped, Nemo is dropped into a dentist’s fish tank with a collection of other fish, all of whom are terrified of the dentist’s reckless niece. It is in this tank where you see very simply that fish are not viewed as living creatures to these humans, but rather as objects, property, gifts. Seeing how poorly the fish are treated in this movie reflects a very sad truth under its layers of fun and humor, and it makes me ponder on how much of a threat we truly pose on the environments of the real clownfish, regal tangs, sharks, sea turtles, and the rest of the fish in the ocean.

None of this takes away from the fact that this is at heart a kids movie: a fun, colorful, and unique one at that. Yet this is a rare picture even among children’s films, an animated movie parents can enjoy just as much as their kids do. Perhaps that is because the main character is a parent himself, and it is easy to relate to his joy, his fears, and his solace as a father, and as someone who cares for something much bigger than himself. Animated films nowadays are like the ocean: vast, wide, never-ending, and impossible to predict. Finding Nemo is the pearl you find in it: small, hard to find, yet immensely valuable, just like its small-finned star.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)” Review (✫✫1/2)

Talk about bare necessities. 

In a 2012 TED talk titled “The Clues To A Great Story“, Pixar animator Andrew Stanton gave some fast facts about Pixar’s successes while creating Toy Story. The essence of his pitch laid in five tips: No songs, no “I want” moments, no happy village, no love story, and make me care. That last part is perhaps the most pertinent.

Well, in 1966’s Disney movie The Jungle Book, there’s a plethora of songs, one of them titled “I Wanna Be Like You”, a happy village, and a romance that’s rushed at the end of the movie. Oh, and it didn’t make me care about Mowgli, Baloo, Bageera, Kaa, Shere Kahn, or any of other jungle animals in this predictable, by-the-books story. Removing me from the experience was perhaps the movie’s biggest violation.

Oh, I admit there’s a lot going on in The Jungle Book. Based on a collection of short stories of the same name by Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book tells the story of Mowgli (Bruce Reitherman), a human orphan who was adopted by the jungle animals and taken care of throughout his youth. One day, the jungle wolves find out that Shere Kahn (George Sanders), a vicious tiger who has a intense hatred of human beings, has returned to the jungle and wants to kill Mowgli. In an effort to protect the boy and save him from Shere Kahn, Mowlgi and his friends Baloo the bear (Phil Harris) and Bageera the black panther (Sebastian Cabot) travel throughout the jungle to return Mowgli to the man village, where he will be reunited with his kind once again.

Back to the TED talk. When Stanton gave his presentation, he gave it knowing the genre’s conventions and with what audiences are used to seeing. Case in point, the singing, the on-the-nose “I want” moments, the happy villages, and the love stories. How many times have we seen each of these? Indeed, how many times have we seen it in most of the Disney movies, dating all the way back to Walt Disney’s first animated feature Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs in 1937?

Disney has used and reused these elements over and over again through the likes of Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty, and seeing those elements repeat again in The Jungle Book definitely doesn’t help in its representation. The film’s premise is not the worst in the world. It had good ideas of man versus nature that it could have been explored very well, and might have even stood out in a long line of conventional Disney pictures.

The problem is The Jungle Book is incredibly rushed, and character’s motivations are not explored much deeper beyond their surface value. Mowgli, for instance, wants to remain in the jungle instead of traveling to live in the man village, but we’re never told why. We assume its because the jungle is where his wolf pack family lives, but since they only appear in the first 15 minutes of the film and are never referred to again, that reasoning quickly diminishes. Baloo is a laid back and easygoing bear that wants to raise Mowgli as his cub, which is not only creepy and silly, but also just plain nonsensical. Why does Baloo want to raise Mowgli as his cub after mere minutes of just meeting him? Why does Mowgli trust this big, brutish bear that could eat him in a heartbeat to be his bear dad? Why are they more concerned about relaxing and chilling in the jungle when they both know that a man-eating tiger is after them?

Which brings me to Shere Kahn. He is perhaps the most underdeveloped of any of the characters, which is the most frustrating to me because he has the most potential for development out of any of the other characters. We’re told that he is a tiger that hates human beings. Okay, why is that? Was there some deep, traumatizing experience where mankind crippled him for life? Did he lose his tiger family to a human tribe? Did mankind kill and take his food supply? Why does Shere Kahn hate mankind?

We’re never given a reason. Shere Kahn just hates man, and Mowgli is a man, and that’s supposed to be it. There’s no complexion to their relationship, just typical archetypes that could be written by any screenwriter that has a thought in their brain and a head on their shoulders.

I acknowledge that the movie is fun, that is without exception. The characters, while flat and thinly written, do have interesting and unique personalities, with the most memorable character being an ecstatic orangutan named King Louie (Louis Prima). The musical numbers are the opportunities where character’s personalities shine the most, and their silly, wacky, and fun energy takes over the screen like an Elephant herd stampeding through the jungle. While the movie is definitely too conventional for its own good, I must admit that I had fun with the music and I especially liked seeing the characters sing along to them. It’s the parts in between where the movie slows down to a crawl.

I look at this movie, and I think of how many Walt Disney pictures came before that did so much better at involving its audience than The Jungle Book did. Look at Pinnocchio. Look at FantasiaDumbo. BambiPeter Pan. Look at all the wonder, the excitement, the feeling of adventure that those movies provoked. Look at those characters, their ambitions, and their reasons for having those ambitions. Look at the magic they instill, the sense of creativity and imagination in their journeys. Yes, those characters had songs, wants, happy villages, and love stories in their movies, but they all did one very important thing that The Jungle Book forgot to do: they made me care.

When Baloo sang “Bare Necessities” to Mowgli, I didn’t know the audience was supposed to take it literally. Walt Disney certainly did.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“INSIDE OUT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A lot going on inside Riley’s head.

Pixar movies have a way of transcending fantasy and translating it into a form of reality. Does that make any sense? Of course it does, because you’ve seen many of Pixar’s masterpieces before. Up’s fantasy is about a man building a floating house about balloons, but the reality it’s portraying is an elder man dealing with personal loss and finding happiness in unexpected places. WALL-E’s fantasy is about a clumsy dumpster robot, but its reality is about discovering humanity and protecting our home and history. And Toy Story. Ooff. That’s a fantasy about one boy’s childhood with his toys and how they’ve impacted him into his adulthood. That is also its reality.

Here we have another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creativity and fantasy, using a human being as a setting, and her emotions as its characters. The human is Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old girl who just recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco. Her emotions are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black), and their memories with her make up the core of Riley’s personality and how she reacts in different situations. After the move-in, Riley gets all shaken up from all of the new adjustments she has to get used to, from being the new kid at school, to moving in to a home smaller than her old one. It’s up to her vibrant and unique emotions to try and keep Riley together and make her new life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one.

Written and directed by Pete Docter, who also helmed Pixar’s Monsters Inc. and Up, Inside Out is a clever, original animated feature that uses the human psyche as its playground. The best thing about the movie is seeing how creative it is in re-creating the human brain for a child’s mind, and seeing children react to all of the colorful adventures going on in this infinite cranial wonderland.

The first thing you notice with the film is its animation: vibrant colors and character models reach out to you in vivid details, even more so without the dimmed effects of 3D. Memories come in the form of small bowling ball spheres, colored after the fashion of each of Riley’s emotions. Different parts of her life are modeled into vast theme-park-like islands, from Family Land all the way to Goofball Island. Each island is also jam-packed with its own sleek features and gadgets that make you feel like you’re in the wonderful landscape of Disney land. Be honest: you would love to ride the literal “Train of thought” if it existed, wouldn’t you?

The film’s creative landscape, though, is to be expected. We’ve seen dozens of vast, colorful settings from many of Pixar’s films before. Andy’s room in Toy Story. Paradise Falls in Up. The AXIOM in WALL-E. You can probably name one setting that struck your eye in each movie, from the world of self-aware automobiles in Cars to the anthill in A Bug’s Life. Pixar has never failed in creativity, and I doubt anyone expects them to start failing now.

What I’m most impressed with is how the film handles its vastly ambitious premise, even with the film’s somewhat purported flaws. For instance, in Riley’s mind, a lot of childish, silly things go on that might make adults go on “offline” mode while the kids laugh at the overt goofiness going on the screen, like double rainbows and processed boyfriend machines. The characters are mostly one-dimensional, and for a film that has five emotions in it, the movie primarily focuses on only two of them: Joy and Sadness.

In any other movie, these quote-unquote “flaws” would make the film a weaker experience for me. It didn’t here. Why? The film’s premise, setting, and execution constitutes a need for each of these elements, making them contributors to the plot instead of distractions degrading from the experience. I would knock the film for being really silly and goofy at times, but it’s taking place in a kid’s mind. What else would be in the ecstatic and excited mind of a child? Doom, gloom, and misery? The characters are mostly one-dimensional and go through little change in the motion picture, but isn’t that kind of expected? I mean, what emotions do you think characters named Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are going to feel? Woe, Delight, Calm, Desire, and Peace? That would break their characters, and detract from the personalities and make them who they are. Finally, there’s the greater focus of using Joy and Sadness as the film’s key players instead of the others. There’s a specific reason for doing this. It’s because those are the core emotions any human being is going to experience: positive and negative.

In the film, Joy and Sadness conflict with each other with their contrasting personalities, each one trying to help Riley in the best ways that they can. Joy wants everything to be happy and optimistic, and for Riley to feel the enjoyment out of every situation. Sadness focuses on the reality of each situation and on the raw reactions one may feel from those that are less than happy. While both emotions conflict with each other in the ways they want to help Riley, they are ultimately the most essential for her. They allow her to express her emotions in their purest forms: in either pure Joy, or pure Sadness.

This is the ultimate meaning of the film, in that there are different things that make up each human being. Some has more anger in their bodies than others. Some may be filled with more Fear than others as well. But like the animated, wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, we’re all unique to each other and in the ways that we handle life’s problems. It’s how a baby will react differently to a traffic jam in how a taxi driver would. It’s how a fully-grown man will react differently to broccoli-covered pizza than a toddler would. It’s how a young, maturing boy will react differently to meeting a girl for the first time, and visa-versa.

As human beings, we are all made up of different emotions and personalities, but being different doesn’t mean being bad. Sometimes we need to experience the rawness of certain emotions for certain situations, and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes, we need the help of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger to get through life. How we express those emotions is what makes us who we are, and we end up being human beings as unique and diverse as Riley’s wonderful emotions are because of them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“MONSTERS UNIVERSITY” Review (✫✫✫)

Class is now in session.  Please open your fright books to page 237. 

Boy, will this bring back memories for you when you’re seventy.  Monsters University does a rare thing with its premise that Pixar does with all of their movies: it incorporates real-world ideas and principles and relates them to the simplistic joys of a kids movie.  Pixar isn’t alien to this concept: with WALL-E, you witness the effects of industrialism, with Up and Toy Story 3, the truth of loss and growing up.  With Monsters University, we are given yet another truth, a truth about changing dreams and the pursuit of a higher education.  It’s not as potent as Monsters Inc., but that’s another issue.

Taking place years before the events of Monsters Inc.Monsters University opens on a young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a punky little eyeball who dreams of growing up to be a scarer for Monsters Incorporated.  His gateway into that dream lies in Monsters University, a college mostly known for its Scaring Program.  This college is intimidating, a buidling filled with dark curtains, creaky floors, and echoed hallways, the perfect place for Scare students.  I’d hate to see what the Art Department looks like on this campus.

So Mike Wazoswki immerses himself in his studies and in his bookwork, determined to be the best scarer at the University.  There’s only one obstacle in his way: James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a cocky, overly-confident jock who thinks getting through college is about a big name and a big roar, which is about the only two things he’s got.  In their first semester at Monsters University, Sully is showing Mike up in every single scare opportunity, and Mike shows Sully up on every test and oral exam.  Monsters University chronicles their adventures together, from their chance introduction, to their rivalrous exchanges between each other, and finally, the unlikely friendship that forms in between them.

Here is a movie that features the typical staples of a Pixar film: a good concept with a well-written plot, all forming together with fluid animation and wonderful voice-acting.  Directed and co-written by Dan Scalon (The other two writers being Robert Baird and original Monsters Inc. writer Daniel Geirson), Monsters University is a story that combines clever, witty humor with that of a conventional, enjoyable story, even if it is at times a tad predictable.  It’s easy to appreciate the humor in the film: even the names of Monster fraternities are enough to utter a chuckle.  Admit it: how can you not smile when hearing the names “Roar-Omega-Roar”, or “Oozma Kappa”?

This is the kind of cleverness in Monsters University: the kind that takes real-world truths and facts and parodies them in a children’s cartoon.  I’ve always appreciated this about Pixar: they’ve always made their work smarter and more profound than other animated films, therefore allowing adults to enjoy their films just as much as the kiddies do.  Whenever you see a slug-like monster rushing at slug-like speed trying to get to class, or seeing a brush0like monster put paint in his hair and go “Ker-Splat!” on a canvas, the cleverness and the humor cannot help but shine through the brightly-colored and textured animation in this film.  Here, the monsters come in all shape, sizes, and breeds in University, and they plop, bang, clang, sneak, slither, and scare in all forms chaos and hilarity on the screen.  Crystal and Goodman, of course, need no comment about the liveliness of their roles.  You only need to see the first Monsters movie to understand how perfect they are in their voice acting.

The important thing to remember here is that Monsters University is not Monsters Inc., and I mean that sincerely as a compliment.  There is no doubt bits and pieces of Inc. that we can piece together in University; it’s charisma is intact, its wit and cleverness in-diminishable, and it cares just as much for its characters as Inc. does.

What its missing, then, is not intelligence or technical efficiency: what its missing is heart.  Or at least, as much as Monsters Inc. has.  To illustrate my point, I bring up a pivotal scene from the original Monsters movie: remember the scene where Sully had to say goodbye to Boo?  Do you remember the scene where he frightened her?  Do you remember Sully playing with her in her room, telling her in his deep baritone voice “Kitty has to go”?  Do you remember that when her door was torn to shreds, he kept one little piece as his reminder of Boo?  And do you remember Mike piecing the door back together, turning it on, and letting Sully open it to find a little girl whispering “Kitty” on the other side?  Do you remember the emotion?  The heartbreak? The happiness?

That “Aww” moment in Monsters Inc. is nowhere to be found in University.  I’m not saying there isn’t emotion in there: there are plenty of deep and convincing moments of well-made drama between characters, and they are done well enough for us to be compelled to care for them.  I’m saying the emotion isn’t done as well, or as effectively, as it was in Inc. to the point where I felt a deeper connection to the characters, almost as if I was in the room saying goodbye to my best imaginary friend.  Someone might think I’m being unfair by comparing this prequel to the original, but that’s the game Pixar is playing here.  Didn’t they know people would automatically look to the original when trying to decide which one is their favorite?

But I digress.  Monsters University is fun, intelligent, and dare I say it, relevant entertainment.  The animation is as stellar as always, it makes its characters compelling, it sets them up properly in line for their inevitable trip to Inc., and it makes a funny connection in between the audience and their own college years.  I strongly recommend you sign up to join the student body at Monsters University.  Just make sure you stay away from the Art Department.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“WALL-E” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A little robot proves that emotion isn’t a malfunction after all.

If there is any film that shows a greater maturity can be reached with something as simple as a children’s film, WALL-E proves that very point perfectly.  It’s everything you’d expect from a Pixar movie and more.  Yes, the animation is gleaming and beautiful.  Yes, the story is touching and poignant.  And yes, the main character is as funny and entertaining as he is sympathetic and lovable.  But oh, is this film much more than being just a simple kids movie.  Much more.

Taking place on planet Earth in a dystopian future, WALL-E (Ben Burns) is the last of a line of robots tasked with cleaning up the earth after the human race left it in a state of filth and desolation.  After they left centuries ago onboard a space ship called the AXIOM, WALL-E is the last active robot who continues to engage in his duties day in and day out on planet earth.  During all of his time on earth, however, he begins to develop something some technicians might call a “malfunction”.  He begins to develop a conscious: a heart.

Time passes as days turn into years, and on one day just like any other, WALL-E encounters EVE (Elissa Knight), a probing bot tasked with retrieving something on planet earth for the AXIOM to analyze.  WALL-E cannot help but feel infatuated by EVE, and their meeting launches into a space adventure of involving, epic, and emotional proportions.

You need to see this film just for the plain simple fact of seeing it.  WALL-E is a bright, beautiful, stylish, and visually stellar film that astonishes the audience through its rich amounts of animation, colors, computer graphics, and textures.  There’s quality in the environments in WALL-E, a vibrant and lively texture that makes the world of WALL-E not only great to look at, but also make it look real. Whether WALL-E is traveling on the chaotic and anxious AXIOM, working on the desperate, garbage-infested planet Earth, floating over the lonely, dusty surfaces of the moon, or flying peacefully through the stars in outer space, WALL-E is great to look at because of its authentic, detailed computer animation.  WALL-E is a great-looking film.

More than that though, I’m impressed by the story and the themes that are being expressed to us through those visuals.  Written and directed by Andrew Stanton, the same man who wrote and directed Finding Nemo, WALL-E is a space adventure filled to the brim with imagination and creativity.  You would typically expect this considering this is Pixar, but even by those standards Stanton outdoes himself.  Similar to Finding Nemo, Stanton once again manages to make a story that is not only funny and light-hearted, but also deep and significant to its audience.  In this story Stanton develops a nice theme of consumerism and environmentalism, though he does it in a subtle way to which it doesn’t overwhelm the story or annoy the audience.  He does this through simple scenes where we see an American flag sitting on a cherished historical landmark long ago, but a slow pan reveals an advertisement for an upcoming BUY N’ LARGE mall coming soon.  Stanton is effective here as a storyteller, as he deliberately uses pace, subtext, and soft, quiet moments to make the greatest impact upon his audience.

And finally, there are the characters, who are written and animated here with such life and uniqueness that it is hard to forget them once you leave the theater.  EVE is a determined, upbeat, and enthralling spherical robot who is just as intimidating and confrontational as she is enthusiastic and sincere.  A small robot named MO is such a clean freak that he will stalk you around an entire space station if your shoes aren’t clean.  And then there is WALL-E, the robot who is so curious, clumsy, funny, brave, heartfelt, and full of wonderment that his heart is as full as any flesh-and-blood human being’s can be.

Again, the majesty and craftsmanship of WALL-E is to be admired.  To the younger audience, it is a children’s film about a curious little robot exploring the universe and finding love.  You wouldn’t be wrong if you made that assessment, but that’s only the surface of the story.  To the older audiences, WALL-E is a fantasizing and amazing story encompassing the totality of human nature, the preservation of the environment, and what would become of planet Earth if humanity does not take care of their home.  Kids will like the movie because WALL-E is quirky, funny and lovable.  Adults will appreciate it for the deeper intentions.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,