Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Party On: MAGIC MIKE XXL


The main question left unresolved at the end of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, a breezy downbeat male stripper drama with the economy on its mind, was a simple one. Will these entertainers find happiness? We watched them enjoy dancing on stage, commodifying their bodies to barely scrape by. But it wasn’t always fun. They had personal problems, and bigger dreams. In the end Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) gave it all up to start his custom furniture business. Now, three years later, we have a sequel, Magic Mike XXL, to answer the question of the characters’ happiness by ditching the heavier dramatic stakes. A romantic subplot, business angst, and drug-related problems go almost entirely by the wayside. Instead, we get a let’s-put-on-a-show road movie, inessential but hugely enjoyable, unfolding as a series of casual comic hangouts and winning theatrical dance sequences. It’s one long party.

Movies can take us places we’ve never been. For most of us, that’ll be a road trip from Miami to Myrtle Beach for a Fourth of July male stripper convention, ending in a performance space filled with screaming and swooning women ready to see perfect physical specimens perform cheeky choreography. Is there such a convention? I don’t know, but it makes for a great low-stakes movie idea. We meet Mike in Tampa, working hard to keep his business afloat when a group of his old stripper buddies (Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, and Kevin Nash) show up. The DJ (Gabriel Iglesias) at the wheel, they’re on their way to the convention, and convince Mike to take a vacation and join them. His girlfriend dumped him. Their manager dumped them, taking the hot young star with him. (What a convenient way to write out the absent Cody Horn, Matthew McConaughey, and Alex Pettyfer, huh?) Why not take a fun holiday weekend trip together?

A loose, shaggy structure moves the guys up the coast, taking pit stops for relaxed sidebars. They find themselves watching a drag show, and then attending a beach party with some likable young women (including Amber Heard). They visit a luxurious private club where a group of performers (Twitch, Donald Glover, Michael Strahan) are presided over by an intensely charismatic host (Jada Pinkett Smith). They stop at a house owned by a wine-guzzling rich lady (Andie McDowell) for some flirtatious conversation. And of course they dance a little at each stop, and elsewhere too, including a hilarious convenience store challenge set to a booming Backstreet Boys song. (Boy bands are an important part of Florida history, we’re told in one of many amusing off-the-cuff conversations.) The movie treats the characters’ lives seriously, but their weekend lightly. It knows they, and we, just want to have a fun time. The result is a charming movie full of good cheer, easy rapport, a comfortable vibe watching a reunion of old friends happy to hang out and dance together again.

Soderbergh hands the director’s chair to his longtime assistant director/producer Gregory Jacobs, but stays on as producer, editor, and director of photography. There’s the same lush naturalism to the dim lighting, the loving consideration of physical presence as conduit of appeal. Reid Carolin returns as screenwriter, finding warm energy in stumbling banter, a funny, supportive, open-minded atmosphere. Without the dramatic tensions or interest in seedier elements of the first film, this one has the characters just enjoying the journey. Along the way, Mike convinces the group to toss out their old routines and just dance from the heart. We hear each man talk about their plans for the future, wishes for secure relationships, steady income. They’re driving towards one last big show. They might never see each other again. Why not do some new choreography, express themselves, go out on a high note?

So it’s three hoary old plots in one: road movie, dance movie, and one last job movie. The structure is similar to an early talkie musical like 1934’s Joan Blondell/Dick Powell picture Dames, which has lots of light comedy before climaxing in a series of elaborate dance sequences. Or look at it as a ribald Step Up movie, not just because it has two of that series’ alumni, but because it’s sprinkled with dance breaks before finishing off at a big contest with an elaborate show-stopping group number giving every character a shining showcase. Their raunchy routines are expertly choreographed collections of uninhibited, abs-baring, hip-thrusting, gyrations and gesticulations, spiced up with prop comedy and a little amateur Astaire and Kelly. Even a bit of the Marx brother’s Duck Soup mirror works its way into the lengthy climax. It’s thick with the electric ogling energy of performance.

That’s why the movie’s such a carousing delight. It finds exuberance of performance with a comfortable ensemble allowed unhurried scenes. Chemistry is what carries it, as well as a refreshing diversity, and low-key non-judgmental kindness, emphasizing the respect and enjoyment all involved on stage and off get out of their sexualized dancing. Other sequels would be tempted to open up new conflicts between the guys, find a villain of some kind, make the stakes higher. Though we learn a lot more about each character’s hopes, dreams, fears, and proclivities, there’s no heavy drama. It’s just a bunch of friends having fun, going with the flow, meeting interesting new people, and pulling together for a final job. It provides just enough plot for forward momentum and settles back into appealing sequences of likable actors thrown into eccentric situations. Light on its feet, there’s a meandering party atmosphere pervading every moment.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ill Communication: ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL


Like its main character, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a big heart hidden under a surface of affectations. When the film, yet another fussily stylized coming-of-age Sundance winner, began, I was worried it was primed to get on my nerves. It charges out of the gate with self-consciously flippant narration wrapped around a teenage boy’s college application letter. Thomas Mann is the boy, Greg, the “Me” of the title. He opens the film delivering verbose voice over in a mopey monologue breaking down the social groups of his quirky high school over a montage of precisely framed tableaus. This set off all the twee faux-indie navel gazing alarm bells in my head. But then a funny thing happened. The movie settled into its rhythms, allowing its characters space to breathe and its style room to reflect an evocative teenage mood. By the end, it had worn down my defenses and moved me.

In the opening, Greg explains his plan to stay invisible during high school, friendly enough to avoid getting picked on, but distant enough to avoid close associations with any one group. He acts like he’s uninterested in making meaningful human connections, but really he’s just scared of getting hurt. Better to have no real friends than risk losing them. Instead, Greg spends his time enjoying culture, his sociology professor father (Nick Offerman) and mother (Connie Britton) having encouraged his serious-minded eclectic exploration of everything from food to literature. But film is his favorite, marching through the Criterion Collection canon and making his own little parodies (with titles like My Dinner with Andre the Giant) in his spare time. It’s not long before this movie’s arch stylization is put to good use reflecting Greg’s worldview. It knows it’s a movie as much as he wishes his life could be understood that way.

His closest acquaintance is a fellow cinephile, Earl (RJ Cyler), who likes the same movies and collaborates on the parodies. They hang out every day and have fun together, but they’re not friends, exactly. Greg calls him his co-worker, but we, and Earl, know better. Over the course of the film, Greg slowly lets down his emotional barriers as he allows himself to step out of the constricting comfort zone he’s built. The first step is a shove. A classmate, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), has been diagnosed with leukemia and Greg’s mother forces him to go over to her house. Despite neither teen feeling especially thrilled about this diagnosis-inspired play date, an embarrassed friendship forms, dropping the embarrassment as they begin to feel comfortable around each other. But Greg remains painfully socially awkward, as the movie thankfully doesn’t become glossy teen romance. It remains realistic about how much we could expect a person so stubborn could change in a relatively short period of time.

Because Rachel’s the “Dying Girl,” we have a good idea about where this is going. But she’s not completely reduced to her condition or used exclusively as a prop for other’s emotional growth. Though she is that, too. Greg and his outlook remains the focus, the characters turning around him vaguely defined, outside his immediate interest. But as he gets to know them, they come into focus, relationships developing in a sweetly fumbling way. The supporting ensemble capably fleshes out what could otherwise be stock eccentric types. Jesse Andrews’ screenplay, based on his novel of the same name, has familiar teen comedy elements (wacky mom (Molly Shannon), wise cool teacher (Jon Bernthal), hellish cafeteria, set cliques, accidental drug use). It’s self-aware and loaded with artifice (split-screens, title cards, winking narration, precisely dropped soundtrack cues), but also totally sincere in its evocation of a pinched emotional perspective. Greg feels things so deeply he holds himself back, preferring movies to the real world because it’s a channeling of emotion. (How many film fans can relate?) Human connection isn’t so easily contained.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has mostly directed TV episodes for Ryan Murphy’s Glee and American Horror Story, is no stranger to letting loose with all manner of wild emotions and attention-grabbing style. Here he deploys an extravagantly directed showiness with long unbroken takes, tight framing to emphasize strong feeling, dramatic focus pulls, cutaways to animations and flashbacks, blocking to enhance emotional distance by pushing characters to the extreme sides of a wide scope frame. But it’s in service of a delicate tone, matching the wild imagination and moody inner life of its main character. As he grows closer to the Dying Girl, and realizes how important his friendship with Earl really is, the film draws them closer in the frame. Soon he’s no longer sharing the shot, but sharing the space. The dramatic style settles down, decreasing its posturing as Greg does.

Its climactic moment – you can probably guess the broad strokes – is its most beautiful, a scene of pure earnest connection mediated, but not superseded, by cinema. The camera focuses on Cooke’s eyes, wet and trembling, the light from a projector dancing colors across her face as their connection reaches its purest expression. But this moment doesn’t solve Greg’s problems, spiking a potentially sentimental moment with a more realistic picture of the emotions and situations involved. Greg gains confidence in risking connection despite possible pain. There’s enough reflection in this end to prevent the film from becoming only blinkered approval of his initial attitudes. So even though the other characters only exist here to put the protagonist on the path out of adolescent selfishness, they remain individuals. He learns to see other people as continually unfolding surprises, with more to learn the more you stick around and get to know them. Films can be like that, too. Sometimes if you take a chance, let your guard down, you can be rewarded with meaningful, maybe painful, connection.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Un-Bear-Able: TED 2


Less a film, more a long string of failed scenes limply strung along by an offensively puny wisp of story, Ted 2 is the sort of movie you’d never want impressionable youngsters to see. Not simply because it’s relentlessly vulgar and casually mean-spirited, but because they might get the wrong idea about what constitutes a joke. Nothing but bad vibes and cheap jabs, jokes here are lazy swipes at stale targets, insults, cultural references, and mind-in-the-gutter gags spat out in a painful patter with no sense of pacing or timing. It’s stiffly assembled and flatly delivered, a long, punishing excursion filled with lifeless shots and awkward pauses. Lacking even the sliver of imagination and energy that made the first Ted, our middling introduction to the eponymous R-rated sentient teddy bear, this sequel begins with no reason to exist and makes no case for itself.

Ted 2 has desperate desire to offend, nakedly condescending. It shouts out names of recent tragedies (in obvious ADR), insults oppressed minorities at every opportunity, and is wallpapered in casual racism, homophobia, and sexism. An equal opportunity offender only lazily upholds the status quo, without a perspective to make any real points. It’s boring to watching such flailing irreverence, chasing empty shocks towards irrelevance. Writer-director Seth MacFarlane’s comic stylings are recognizable from his rancid Family Guy and flop western spoof A Million Ways to Die in the West. He thinks standing back from his material spouting off random garbage is equivalent to wit, but it’s a bullying approach, smirking and slapping at an audience while talking down to his own characters. And then he asks us to care about their plights.

Unlike its predecessor, which fell back on a predictable man-child comedy structure asking its characters to grow up, this new Ted asks us to love them even though, and often because, they’re unrepentant jerks. Mark Wahlberg returns as the man whose childhood toy became Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), and they proceed to rampage through a movie that has them make fun of black men and gay people, destroy a barn, steal weed, molest Tom Brady, start a fight at New York Comic-Con, and knock over a shelf of samples in a sperm bank without consequences. (No good movie has ever featured sperm bank shenanigans.) All that happens because Ted and his wife (Jessica Barth) want to adopt a baby, but are told they can’t since the bear isn’t legally a person. Makes sense to me, but MacFarlane wants us to be outraged enough to care about a protracted court battle as the uncouth bear decides to fight for his nonexistent civil rights.

Between unfunny tomfoolery and insult comedy, long scenes play out mostly straight as characters earnestly discuss Ted’s consciousness, determined to prove his personhood to a jury. How am I to care about this bear when the movie’s so fundamentally unserious, and he’s totally, irredeemably, purposelessly unlikable? We’re supposed to feel suspense waiting for the verdict, after a plucky young lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) delivers sincere speeches and Ted compares his trials to the plight of slaves (he watches Roots and references Dred Scott) and gays (or, as he tells the court, denying his equal rights “is just like what you’re doing to the fags! I’m sorry—homos”). The joke is that Ted uses a slur and then corrects himself to a different impolite term. The effect is an insult – hurtful words so dismissively tossed off – wrapped in a bigger insult – that anyone expected a laugh out of it. It takes a particular kind of social blindness to make a movie that’s both a metaphor for civil rights battles and an insult to anyone who’s fought for them.

It’s lazy and hateful, with sincerity cut only by stale attempted humor the very definition of “punching down.” By the end, two bullies have dressed up in costume to menace nerds at a convention, a wise old civil rights attorney (Morgan Freeman) tells the jury to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and vote pro Ted, and Jay Leno has appeared as himself pretending to be “gay” in the most awkwardly silent thirty seconds I’ve spent in a theater this year. And I saw Paul Blart 2. MacFarlane shows no desire to shape a scene or whip up momentum. With the deadliest pacing, every gag is dead on arrival. There’s no inner drive, nearly two hours spent just clunking along from one patch of dead air to the next. He takes lazy jabs at Bieber and Kardashians (hardly the freshest, or most deserving, of targets), stops scenes cold for fumbled cameos (poor Liam Neeson), and displays a preoccupation with male virility as if it’s an inherently funny topic.

This movie is superfluously backwards and overwhelmingly dull, too slapdash in its story and comfortable in its hypocritical and unchecked assumptions about what’s funny, as if anyone that’s not a straight white bro is worth pointing out and picking at. But, yes, by all means, let’s respect a stupid teddy bear. Yeesh. It’s agonizingly clear how grating and deadening MacFarlane’s hodgepodge approach is. I think he loves movies – he stages a straight-faced joke-free Busby Berkeley-ish musical number as his opening credits – and maybe genuinely wants to make a case for equality. But he’s too tone deaf to be funny while doing so, or control the real messages his Ted oozes.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Furry Road: MAX


Who’s a good dog? Max is a good dog. He can sit, stay, beg, bark, obey orders, follow his leader, search for contraband, find missing persons, track suspects, sniff out bombs, serve in the military, escape bad guys, fight off meaner dogs, take down an international smuggling conspiracy, save hostages, and bring a grieving family closer together by loving them as only man’s best friend can. Sounds like a good dog to me. The movie in which he stars, played by a handsome Belgian Malinois named Carlos, is a slice of schmaltzy Americana, flag-waving, manipulative and corny as all get out. It’s a movie intent on pushing buttons with sentimentality, easy suspense, and simple uplift. But at least Max proves himself one of the most uncomplicatedly likable heroes you’ll see at the movies this summer. Who couldn’t like a dog this sweet and tough?

We meet Max in Afghanistan, on patrol with his until. There his handler (Robbie Amell) is killed. The dog is returned stateside where he’s diagnosed with a bad case of canine post-traumatic stress disorder. By this point we’ve already met the family of the fallen soldier, seen the funeral where the dog sits in front of the coffin and refuses to leave. You’d have to be made of stone not to feel the tug of heartstrings, since the movie’s working so hard to yank them there. So, since Max has been declared no longer fit for duty, the family adopts him. They’re mourning the same man. Through the presence of the pooch, the family – a gruff dad (Thomas Haden Church), sweet sad mom (Lauren Graham) and sullen teenage boy (Josh Wiggins) – slowly works through grief while learning to live with this new companion.

That’s surprisingly heavy stuff for a kids’ animal adventure. This glossy, earnest look at a mourning family has some sincere intent to focus on the plight of soldiers and their families’ through a dog’s-eye view. I liked this aspect of the movie, as the boy and dog learn to trust each other and the family starts to work through emotional trauma, the boy’s father growing distant, his mother quick to cry, his friends (comic relief Dejon LaQuake and love interest Mia Xitlali) the only ones ready to help him train the dog. Soft, bright cinematography keeps things feeling safe and comfortable even when dealing with pain. There’s always a feeling things will work out just fine. I mean just look at that dog, good at growling, panting away, chuffed to be sniffing and barking and going for walks and chewing on his toys. Maybe one day they’ll let him in the house.

But right when the movie seems to be narrowing in on the sensitive emotional terrain of the family, it becomes another movie. Writer-director Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) and co-writer Sheldon Lettich (of Stallone and Van Damme pictures) really want to underline this dog’s heroism as a salute to military dogs everywhere. They get Max and his boy involved in a crime thriller about a crooked soldier smuggling arms to drug cartels south of the border. The dog recognizes one of the culprits and ends up leading his new family down a dangerous path ending in a red-meat satisfying boom-pow conclusion pushing the edge of the PG rating with fights and stunts out of proportion with the smaller, sweeter, sadder story pushed to the margins. There are some nice twists, and its reasonably involving on a dumb level. But I wondered why it was there.

Maybe it’s best to think of Max not as a socially conscious boy-and-his-dog picture, but as a canine version of The Rock's Walking Tall. It’s a story of a veteran who returns home psychologically wounded by war, then needs to clean up his small town’s crime problem. The veteran here just happens to be a dog. Over the end credits, we’re told military pooches have a proud tradition. We see photos of various dogs in various wars, and are shown statistics as to how many have died for our country. It’s a nice sentiment, and the movie, all apple-pie, bike rides, Fourth of July, and fireworks, looks at an interesting subset of military service. And yet, I couldn’t shake dissatisfaction as a great dog – and some great dog acting, with perfect reaction shots, fun stunts, and reasonably believable action – was pressed into clunky formula. Wouldn’t the family-friendly canine remake of Best Years of Our Lives or Coming Home it occasionally is be more interesting?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Date of the Dead: BURYING THE EX


There have been and will be worse movies than Burying the Ex this year. But I doubt many could match it for disappointment. It’s an uncharacteristically shallow work from Joe Dante, a beloved movie-mad director usually reliable in his ability to bring energy and complexity to all manner of theoretically disreputable genres, while retaining a core of deep affection for the material with which he’s playing. Just look for his name if you want to see clever, aesthetically appealing and subtextually rich creature features (Piranha), monster movies (Gremlins), backlot comedies (The ‘Burbs), sci-fi satires (Small Soldiers), mid-century B-movie love-letters (Matinee), self-critical sequels (Gremlins 2), and live-action cartoons (Looney Tunes: Back in Action). His latest is disappointing not just for falling far short of his usual standard. This is only his third feature in sixteen years. It’s a long-awaited return, enough to make one wish it was in service of a better script.

At the center of Burying the Ex is a horror geek (Anton Yelchin) working in a year-round Halloween shop selling costumes, décor, and curios. The set is lovingly festooned with copies of Fangoria and Video Watchdog, vintage posters for genre cinema, and a TV behind the counter playing Hammer horror. It’s a fandom repository, a place where the film’s macabre heart shines brightest. Throughout the film, the protagonist visits a repertory cinema for a Val Lewton double feature, attends an outdoor screening of Night of the Living Dead, and has his grating comic relief half-brother (Oliver Cooper) watch a Herschell Gordon Lewis DVD. If you’re one of the club, enjoying all these references piling up, you’re certainly on Dante’s wavelength. He loves this stuff genuinely, and knows that those who do will have lots in common with his main character.

Unfortunately, the plot around this guy takes that for granted, expecting us to love him because of the surface ways he’s like us. Screenwriter Alan Trezza concocts a scenario in which we’re supposed to hate the protagonist’s girlfriend (Ashley Greene) because she has no time for his collections and preoccupations. She’s a vegan blogger – shorthand for type-A and clingy, for some reason – who throws out his mint-condition posters to make room for her recycling bins. This is seen as reason enough to loathe her. The guy is going to break up with her, but before he can she’s hit by a bus and bleeds out on the street. At least now he can date the hot malt shop owner (Alexandra Daddario) we know is cool like him because she likes the same pop culture. They bond over Cat People and General Mills Monster Cereals. There’s nothing particularly charming or interesting about their discussions, nor are the characters anything more than what the plot demands.

When the movie’s horror/comedy conceit kicks in, it’s about time. A devilish knickknack makes the dead ex’s dying wish – “We’ll be together forever” – come true. She’s reanimated, a lovesick zombie shambling back to her boyfriend. Clumsy farce follows as a scared guy scrambles to keep his new girlfriend from discovering his undead one and vice versa. This is potentially fruitful ground for genre kicks, and Dante stages the eventual zombie chomping with reasonably effective spurts of gooey fake blood (no phony digital spray here). But the horror isn’t scary – just one good jump scare – and the comedy isn’t funny. Trezza’s script is full of fumbling one-liners falling flat despite the best efforts of everyone involved, and predictable plot points slowly drag their way on screen.

It’s tepid sitcom plotting, without any of the sweet bite or grinning horror that defines Dante’s best work. He’s still capable of staging a light, colorful moment, and the cast is full of bright young performers who’ve been likable elsewhere. But all that can’t save a shrill, tone-deaf experience in which one-note stereotypes engage in underwritten antics. The love triangle is unconvincing, mostly because the guy and his new love interest are so flatly drawn. But even worse is the mean-spirited perspective on the zombie ex. She’s such an unrelentingly shrewish portrait, without any thought given to her inner life, closing off any poignancy or conflict over her death and resurrection. There’s simply no tension or complication to be found. The proceedings grow depressing as they drag on, a thin idea stretched beyond all sustainability, with only the faintest glimmers of personality for the dedicated auteurist to enjoy. I’d say it’s a for-the-diehard-fans-only proposition, but they’re also the ones who’ll be most disappointed. Every bit of Burying the Ex simply points towards ways it should be better.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Straight Outta Inglewood: DOPE


In many ways, Dope is a standard coming-of-age American indie, right down to the buzzy Sundance premiere and self-consciously precious stylization. What saves it from growing insufferable is its energy and perspective. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) gives the proceedings a loping eccentricity informing each meandering step through a fraught Inglewood odyssey. It stars a good kid in a bad neighborhood, who is pulled away from his path to Harvard through a series of accidents and coincidences, then must work his way back. Complications pile up, and a variety of subplots and supporting characters push each other off screen for puzzling periods of downtime. It’s a movie with too much, finding time in its loose plot for narration on everything from racial authenticity to gay rights, drug dealers debating the morality of drones, and Pharrell-penned musical interludes. It’s too much, but when it settles into an easy groove, it’s a pleasure.

Set in modern day Los Angeles County, high-schooler Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his buddies (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) look like they stepped out of Yo! MTV Raps in the early 90’s. Self-described black geeks, they love old school hip-hop, playing in a garage band they started after dropping out of marching band, and shopping for vintage gear. The opening narration (delivered smoothly by Forest Whitaker) tells us they aren’t in a gang and don’t do drugs, spending their days dodging dangerous characters while working towards good SAT scores, a fun prom, and going to college. But, with their adolescent urges, they’re always looking for ladies. When a nice girl from the block (Zoë Kravitz) invites them to a birthday party down at the club, they can’t help themselves, even though the guest of honor is a notorious local dope dealer (A$ap Rocky).

Their plans for the future are thrown into doubt when the police break up the party and the dealer stashes his dope in Malcolm’s bag. Our leads escape, but soon those dangerous characters draw near as the trio scrambles to stay alive and get rid of the drugs in a way that’ll get them out of trouble with both cops and criminals. They’re caught between a dealer and a law place. For a while it’s a madcap scramble to get the bag back to its owner, a goal complicated by a rival dealer (Amin Joseph), a slimy businessmen (Roger Guenveur Smith), a high rich girl (Chanel Iman) and her aspiring producer brother (Quincy Brown), and Malcolm’s mom (Kimberly Elise). A tight focus on this crisis, in a one-crazy-After Hours-day mode, rockets the movie along, but soon drifts away as the film swells with misjudged comedy and overcrowded subplots – romantic, academic, criminal, and more – which drain the threat of immediacy.

A sort of slow-motion caper movie, with a supporting cast too sporadically deployed and stereotypically defined to really pop, the key source of interest is Malcolm. Rachel Morrison's smooth cinematography keeps him the center of attention as Moore delivers a loose, funny, charismatic performance. It’s easy to root for the meek geek in over his head in situations out of his control, and Famuyiwa finds workable tonal slipperiness by allowing the central character such fine consistency. Through a gauntlet of disreputable scenarios by turns comic, suspenseful, and sexy, we watch this young man attempt to wrest back agency in his own life and prevent damaging his Ivy League dreams. The way there takes too many detours, but Moore’s allowed to be the sort of performer who immediately draws attention and sympathy whenever he’s on screen. His climactic recitation of his college application essay, looking straight out at the audience before pulling up his hoodie and walking away, is such a powerful moment of rhetoric. It’s almost excusable how uninvolving the film’s back stretch – involving a dumb hacker (Blake Anderson), and some far-fetched contrivances – grows, plus the few extra endings beyond that point.

The telling may be shaggy, but there’s still some appeal in the framing. Matching the main trio’s throwback vibe, Famuyiwa’s direction is similarly inspired by early-90’s culture, specifically the particular indie sensibility birthed by the early successes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. There was a period of a few years where all you needed to launch a tiny film project was semi-comic violence, ironic distance, loud politics, dialogue saturated with pop culture patter, and liberal use of split-screens, title cards, arch narration, and malleable chronology. Few of the derivative works were as good as their inspirations, and even some of them weren’t that good. But somehow, twenty years on, there’s some freshness in seeing the old tropes again, especially when brought to a slick hipster synthesis speaking to uniquely modern discourse on race and opportunity (and technology, though dropping the word “bitcoin” a hundred times doesn’t make it as successful a topic here). There’s personality to spare, enough to almost cover up its sloppier parts.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Life of the Mind: INSIDE OUT


Inside Out is a film so in touch with its protagonist’s emotions it makes them characters unto themselves. The result is one of Pixar’s loveliest conceptual gambits, daring in its simplicity, moving in its surprising dexterity. Certainly the idea of personifying the human brain’s many emotions is not a new one. But what’s new is this film’s sustained commitment to psychological zaniness, finding inventive and satisfying analogues for mental processes without losing a sense of compassion or an elastic sense of humor. A moving evocation of complicated emotions through brilliantly colorful cartoon adventure, it’s a perfect fit for Pixar’s favorite subjects: elaborate contraptions, colorful characters, memorable complications, affectionate teamwork parables, and emotional complexity. This is one of the animation studio’s warmest, most vital films in years.

Here is a film knowledgeable about what it’s like to be eleven, going on twelve, full of conflicting impulses on the bridge between childhood wonder and adult resignation. Our main character is Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a girl whose loving parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) have decided to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, a prospect as intimidating as it is exciting. Our setting is her brain, amongst the little voices inside her head. Writer-director Pete Docter (responsible for modern classics Monsters, Inc. and Up) imagines a quintet of primary-color cartoon beings sitting behind a control panel in a big pastel room, processing incoming sensory detail and converting them into memories. Most importantly, they’re her emotions, helping her react to the world. Taking charge is Joy (Amy Poehler), but Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) are jostling to make themselves known as well.

The emotions are brought to vivid life in voice performances brimming with a child’s excitable naïveté. Joy isn’t the lead for no good reason. There’s energy and happiness, and character coherence as the five beings make themselves known through one voice. It’s easy to believe these different outlooks on life expressed by their color-coded geometric designs – sunny yellow flower Joy, blobby blue Sadness, wiry purple Fear, broccoli-green Disgust, squat fire-red Anger – add up to one character. They’re treated as figures of fun, predictable in their responses to any given development, and seriously as key components of any healthy mind. You might think a movie built around characters defined by precisely one emotion would grow monotonous, but the performers find remarkable shadings within their set ranges, piling on adjectives, growing complex as they work together to run one mind. Docter and crew find value in every emotion, acknowledging they each have their place.

As they punch buttons and manipulate glowing memory orbs on their way to storage, we see only a blending of their attributes can accomplish the goal. Trouble starts when, struggling to keep Riley joyful after the jarring cross-country move, Joy and Sadness are caught in an accident. They’re left stranded far from the controls, lost in Long Term Memory. The others try their best to keep Riley safe and sane, resulting in mood swings – sarcasm, panic, and outbursts. Meanwhile, Joy and Sadness move through cartoon symbolism – a train of thought, warehouse workers causing forgetfulness, dream production studios, and a dark scary subconscious. This vision of the mind is a world of vibrant colors, candy textures in gleaming mental faculties factories and vast corridors of memories. Joy and Sadness work their way through lands of imagination, abstract thought, core personality traits, and crates of facts and opinions, on the way back to where they belong.

Imagination fills the frame. We meet a forgotten imaginary friend (Richard Kind), glimpse childhood memories, and meet some of Riley’s fears and dreams (scary clowns and towheaded boy bands). Rubbery cartoon mechanics in the mind – splats and bonks, stretchy expressionism and sight gags – tie to a real-world portrayed more drably and realistically, as the wacky emotions’ antics play out subtly across the girl’s face. It’s one of the most simply astonishing feats of animated acting I’ve ever seen. Inside, her emotions contort and careen, while on the outside she appears thrillingly natural, a real little girl. It’s a terrific crosscut cause-and-effect, good for gags and heartfelt tenderness. This is as good a metaphor for depression as I’ve ever seen – inner conflict leading to outer discomfort and vice versa – wrapped in a buoyantly entertaining cartoon adventure. Riley is unhappy with her new circumstances and is unsure how to react. Starting over in a new place is difficult.

So is growing older. Memories fade. What once was important to your personality evolves, or disappears. Old happy memories gain bittersweet tints. This all packs quite the wallop. Like Up and Toy Story 3, it gains great power from its recognition of aging’s melancholy inevitability, and the importance of embracing new aspects of life’s journey, stepping forward with those you love. Here there are passages of childhood memory I would compare to The Tree of Life for their precise observation and overwhelming compassion. Moments inside the brain, cartoony though they may be, come freighted with symbolic imagery in vast stretches of psychology transmuted into only-in-animation splendor. There is no villain. Joy’s main goal to keep Riley happy all the time is recognized as unsustainable. In its simplicity, it’s complicated.

And yet it’s also light and lovely, teasing in its complexity. It contains great truths and great feelings without dragging itself down. Great fun is kept aloft by the lovable voices, Pixar-formula cotton-candy plotting (co-written by Meg LeFauvre and Josh Cooley), Michael Giacchino’s chirpy New Age fairy tale score, and a team of animators imbuing each frame with buoyant personality. It could make you laugh and cry and feel happy for doing so, indulging every single emotion at the controls of your responses as we speak. Another great Pixar confections, Inside Out is sweet entertainment for the whole family. And like the best family films, it imagines a lively multicolored scenario a little exciting, a little scary, as bright and funny as it is wise. In a world that can be full of forced good feelings and manic positivity, how wonderful to find such a fast, clever, entertaining argument for embracing every feeling in your emotional palate.
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