Wednesday, June 17, 2015

"Inside Out" Review

Many would argue that Pixar has fallen off since Toy Story 3, continuing on in the ensuing years with sub-standard animated features like Cars 2Brave and Monsters University. After an empty 2014 slate, consider their latest film, Inside Out, a breath of fresh air. I'm happy to see the Pixar brain trust come storming back with a complex, character-rich, visually-stunning ORIGINAL story that can proudly stand among the studio's very best. 

Inside Out takes place almost entirely inside the mind of 11-year old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). We get to know her through her feelings of Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) following a family move from Minnesota to San Fransisco. Along with a new city comes a new house and a new school. As a pre-pubescent girl encountering these situations for the first time, surely there are other emotions worthy of inclusion in this kind of story, like contempt, affection, confidence, curiosity, and embarrassment. As much as this film doesn't need a sequel, I could see those other emotions coming into play in a future story where we catch up with Riley as a full-fledged teenager. As it stands, Inside Out finds a believable balance between the five emotions that the storytellers have elected to include.

The plot thickens when Joy and Sadness are forced out of "head"quarters in order to save Riley's fondest memories from being forgotten, leaving her character to be dictated by Fear, Disgust and Anger. On the way back to "head"quarters, Joy and Sadness run into several unique characters, my favorite among them a huggable imaginary friend that Riley once had named Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind). There's a great scene where Bing Bong leads Joy and Sadness through the realm of "abstract thought." Pay attention to the dialogue here for what I found to be a genius meta-commentary on emotions as well as animation itself.

As the best Pixar movies do, Inside Out delivers something for both kids and adults. This film will delight everyone with its colorful characters, vibrant animation and sense of adventure. Some older kids and parents will likely appreciate more of the humor than younger children because the film is all about growing pains. Not everyone can relate to a happy childhood playing hockey with both parents cheering you on from the sidelines, but everyone has certainly experienced joy, fear, anger, sadness and disgust in some form or another. Inside Out prompts us to reflect on our own memories and experiences and how they have shaped our individual character. In that sense, the film is fodder for enlightening post-screening discussion. It should go without saying that it stays with you long after the credits have rolled. 

It's truly amazing what director Pete Docter and the rest of Pixar's contributing minds have achieved with what is probably the most complex character deconstruction across film or television in recent memory. Keep in mind that this is an animated movie aimed at children. 
Critics sometimes talk about how great acting performances can put you inside the mind or the "shoes" of a character. Now, we literally get to see what's going on inside the lead character's head in a way that I don't think any other movie has allowed us to do before. We understand precisely what makes Riley tick. Every action performed by the emotions inside her mind prompts a very believable reaction in her outward character. I think Inside Out will justly pose some very interesting thinking points for child psychologists. 

The more I think about Inside Out, the more I enJOY it. Perhaps that's apropos. Don't miss one of Pixar's best, most emotionally powerful films in a return to classic form for the studio.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Playmation | Powered by Disney (Official Announcement Trailer) Review

Following the success of the Infinity video game line, Disney is following up with a line of wearable gadgets designed to insert kids right into the gaming experience itself. Rather than playing, kids will actually be "doing" as they role-play their favorite heroes including Iron Man and Luke Skywalker. 

Based on the announcement trailer above, it's extremely difficult to discern exactly what it is that Disney is selling. Further research has revealed that the Playmation experience will involve wearable tech designed specifically for children. 

What's cool about this idea is that what used to be pretend could become reality. I remember running around with my friends at a young age pretending to shoot webs out of my hands like Spider-Man and facing off in epic lightsaber battles with long cardboard tubes. Starting this fall, that vivid childlike imagination may be fully realized. Playtime may now literally involve fighting aliens in the street. 

On the flipside, I think many consumers will find fault with this new idea. Childlike imagination is arguably the most powerful creative force we feeble humans possess, and now it seems Disney wants to supplant that by telling kids how and what scenarios to imagine rather than encouraging kids to have ideas of their own. 

That thinking misses the point, though.

These new toys are designed to supplement playtime, not overtake it. And they're exactly that: TOYS. Toys that one can choose whether or not to play with. Not to mention, The Avengers and Star Wars are the only two properties coming to Playmation for the time being. If kids would rather pretend to be Superman or a construction worker or a race car driver, then they have the creative freedom to continue to do so as they have for generations. But if they want to play Iron Man or otherwise test their mettle using The Force, then they will have an innovative tool at their disposal to make playtime especially awesome. 

"Jurassic World" Review

It's been 22 years since John Hammond first introduced the world to the many wonders (and dangers) of Isla Nublar. After two underwhelming sequels, the wait for a worthy follow-up to Steven Spielberg's classic 1993 sci-fi film is finally over.

Jurassic World begins a brand-new continuity stemming from the original Jurassic Park. The events of The Lost World and Jurassic Park III are all but ignored. This latest adventure shows us what Isla Nublar would be like if Hammond's vision had been fully realized. Jurassic World is a fully-functioning theme park designed around prehistoric marvels, evoking some of the cornerstones of family vacations and mass-market entertainment that audiences are all familiar with. Monorails to and from the park's resort hotels as well as the central discovery center (a kind of outdoorsy "Cinderella's Castle") evoke fond memories of Disney World; the Mosasaurus arena is reminiscent of Shamu's at Sea World. The main thoroughfare is flanked by corporate-branded shops like Starbucks, Oakley, Dave & Busters, and Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.

Jurassic World is visibly a marketing cash cow, but all that product placement is there for a reason. It calls to mind the corporate involvement that frequently goes along with blockbuster movies like Jurassic World. All the while, the main characters behind the scenes (Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus) crack wise about audiences demanding attractions that are "bigger, better and scarier" with "more teeth," kind of like what mass entertainment has become. Everyone is looking for the next big thrill, especially at movie theaters. That's why we have so many mindless, mega-budget event movies like Transformers, Man of Steel and, well, Jurassic World. What sets this movie apart from the rest of the summer pack, however, is self-awareness. After discussing the risks posed by a new genetically-modified dinosaur hybrid, Johnson's character, sporting an illicit "Jurassic Park" t-shirt, says something to Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), JW's head honcho, along the lines of "new" not always being "good" or "better" or "right." It's a wink to the audience that lets us know that this movie has no intention of trying to outdo a classic.

Added to the fold are Claire's nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson), because what would a Spielbergian thriller be without children in peril? They aren't present in the film for any other reason really. I find it sketchy that any parent in their right mind would send their children to an island off of Costa Rica by themselves to catch up with a workaholic aunt who hasn't seen or spoken to them in seven years. I found the kids to be the worst offenders in a cast of thinly-sketched characters.

Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio) is a weak excuse for a human villain, and Claire (Howard) isn't bad but could've been far more interesting with a richer backstory. The only main character worth his salt is Owen (Chris Pratt), the park's velociraptor specialist. It's easy to see that Pratt is having fun with this role. His performance elevates the material as he confirms our suspicions that he could be a superstar in the making. Guardians of the Galaxy was no fluke. If Pratt is ever finally approached for Indiana Jones 5, consider Jurassic World his audition tape.

It doesn't surprise me that the characters are fairly weak and that the plot leaves a few loose ends untied, probably for sequel potential. A team of four screenwriters (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly) were commissioned to assemble this beast, and it's been rumored that they didn't see eye to eye on several things. Not to mention it took 14 years for someone to finally come up with a story worth telling for $150 million. Knowing that going in, it's fairly easy to let those sins be to pass, especially when the dino action is so f**king awesome.

When the kids aren't around, the film is everything I never knew I wanted from a Jurassic Park sequel. I want suspense, terror, high stakes, and after 20 years, I want some clever nods to the original. The film delivers on all those fronts, although not to the extent of the original. Nothing can ever top that first scene with the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the rain from JP1. But I never thought I'd enjoy watching domesticated raptors run side-by-side with a man on a motorcycle. It's just dumb fun this time around, which is all a film about humans and dinosaurs together in the present day should be.

I won't spoil anything more, but I just want to add that the last 15-20 minutes of Jurassic World are perfect for the way this narrative progresses. If somehow you are unable to appreciate the ending, then your expectations may be misaligned. I, for one, led our sold-out IMAX theater in thunderous applause.

In the end, Jurassic World is a brainless summer romp of the highest order as well as a satisfying deconstruction of blockbuster culture. Director Colin Trevorrow has delivered the finest Jurassic Park sequel yet, despite several shortcomings in characterization. Be sure to catch this one in 3D on the biggest screen you can find.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

"Spy" Review

Spy is another winning comedy from director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and superstar Melissa McCarthy. This time working from a script by Feig, McCarthy finally has a proper starring vehicle in which she shows off not only her broad comedic range but a surprising knack for action set pieces and choreography. If this is any indication, the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot is in perfect hands.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst with no field experience who gels nicely as the voice in the ear of field operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who fancies himself America's 007. Cooper has guided Fine safely through several missions until the identities of every field agent are compromised at the hands of a sexy arms dealer (Rose Byrne). As one of the few whose face would go unrecognized by the enemy, Cooper is sent in to infiltrate a plot to sell a nuclear warhead to terrorists.

The tired "fish-out-of-water" routine works so well here because Cooper is a perfect fit for it. McCarthy's talents don't quite work in every scenario (see Tammy), but it seems Feig has cracked the nut. That said, I can also understand why the actress's schtick does not appeal to some, as she frequently relies solely on her physique to generate laughs. To paraphrase The Hangover's Leslie Chow, it's funny because she's fat. But one can only fall over so many times before fatigue sets in for the audience as well as the star.

To counteract the slapstick, McCarthy has always had a quick wit about her as well. I've always found that to be her best asset, and it's used well in Spy with plenty of hilarious lines like "I would welcome that with an open mouth" after Fine says he could kiss Cooper for getting him out of trouble with some thugs on a mission in Bulgaria.

Not to be outdone by her silly brand of physical comedy is McCarthy's ability to literally kick ass. There's a scene in a kitchen in which Cooper engages a female terrorist (Nargis Fakhri) in hand-to-hand combat. To the surprise of just about every character in the film, Cooper is highly skilled in close-quarters combat and gunplay. It's put to stellar use here. With Cooper frantically wielding little more than frying pans and Tupperware against a trained killer with a knife, the scene is funny not because the character is scrambling for a way to defend herself but because it's so unlike anything we've seen McCarthy pull off with any of her characters so far. And I'm not kidding when I add that it's as visceral a fight scene as anything Bourne or Bond has ever given us.

The leading lady is given a wonderful supporting cast featuring Law, Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, and Jason Statham, who shows a brilliant knack for quick-witted comedy himself. Statham is really the standout of the supporting players in the role of Rick Ford, a disgruntled CIA agent who disavows the agency when they send Cooper into the field over him. Statham's comedic timing is spot on as he shares plenty of screen time with the heavy-hitting McCarthy. Any foil of hers needs to step up to the laughing plate in a big way, and Statham succeeds. I'm hoping we see more action/comedy from him in the future.

With no artistic aspirations or pretense, viewers should be well aware of what they're getting themselves into with a McCarthy vehicle like Spy. That said, those willing to bite will be treated to the funniest comedy of 2015 so far.